Travel office furor refuses to fade away Political slip: The firing of the White House travel staff has caught the sympathy of Congress and the public, while casting the Clintons in an unflattering light.

January 19, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLINTON, Md. -- Inside a modest split-foyer home, Billy Dale's phone rings constantly, his wife tends alternately to their baby granddaughter and her husband's legal documents, and Mr. Dale narrates his travails at the hands of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

These are the sights and sounds of vindication.

Mr. Dale, who served in the administrations of eight presidents, speaks softly and with more hurt than bitterness.

Nonetheless, his words have stung the administration that fired him, prosecuted him and continues to malign him and the job he performed as head of the White House travel office.

"Hillary Clinton says this is about how professionally the White House travel office was being run," Mr. Dale said. "Well, we never landed the press plane at the wrong airport. We never billed news organizations for trips they weren't on."

Those things and a lot more have happened since May 1993, when the travel office employees were abruptly fired, their business given, briefly, to an Arkansas company close to the Clintons.

In hindsight, not just to Mr. Dale but to White House officials who had to clean up the mess, it all seems so unnecessary.

"If they wanted me to leave," he says quietly, "all they had to do was wait a month for me to resign. I told them I was leaving."

Instead, the Clinton administration fired him -- and the six people who worked for him -- gave them two hours to leave and then leveled accusations about their honesty that it could not prove.

Mr. Dale was charged with embezzling money belonging to news organizations that travel with the president. None of those organizations had complained about any missing money, and some reporters testified on Mr. Dale's behalf. A jury took two hours to acquit him on all charges.

That might have been the end of it, but for files uncovered last week that showed great interest in the travel office by the first lady. "We need those people out, we need our people in," Mrs. Clinton reportedly told David Watkins, a White House official at the time.

Mrs. Clinton insists that her only interest was sound fiscal practices. Various Clinton lawyers and aides have gone further, renewing attacks on Mr. Dale by leaking details of how Mr. Dale offered to plead guilty to a misdemeanor of temporarily putting ,, money in his personal bank account.

For 30 months, Mr. Dale kept silent. This time, his trial behind him, he is fighting back.

He recalls the dismissive words of Robert Bennett, the Washington lawyer who counts the president among his clients.

"I saw where Bob Bennett said that we, in the travel office, were 'glorified bellmen,' " Mr. Dale recalls. "Well, I never considered myself too good to pick up a piece of luggage or to crawl into the belly of an airplane or drive a press van in a motorcade. I did anything that had to be done to get the job done.

"The job was helping the media to be where it needed to be in order to cover the president of the United States when he traveled domestically or to foreign countries."

Mr. Dale, a native of Grundy, Va., came to Washington in 1958 when the Air Force stationed him at Andrews Air Force Base. He still lives near the base, which presidents and the press use as a staging area for their tours of the nation and the world.

He later joined the Veterans Administration as a communications officer and was recruited onto the permanent White House staff in the Kennedy administration in the old Telegraph and Travel Office.

Filling in on the switchboard one day, he was called upon to play Santa for young Caroline Kennedy, who thought -- correctly, it turned out -- that she could wander into her daddy's bedroom and dial up St. Nick.

"Have you been a good girl?" Billy Dale Claus asked the first daughter.

It didn't take long to see that the Clinton administration would be different. Mr. Dale says he tried three times to schedule meetings with press secretary Dee Dee Myers and communications director George Stephanopoulos. He was rebuffed each time.

This squares with testimony and documents subsequently unearthed by a House committee that have shown that Clinton aides were discussing replacing the travel office even before Mr. Clinton took the oath of office.

Recently released documents from the files of David Watkins and Clinton friend Harry Thomason show that Mr. Thomason had designs on the entire executive branch air operations and wanted to run the travel office to establish his expertise and credibility.

In addition, according to Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., chairman of a committee investigating the travel office affair, it was Mr. Thomason who suggested to Mrs. Clinton that there was financial wrongdoing in the travel office.

Neither Mr. Thomason nor his lawyers would comment this week.

Still, the attention given to the 1993 firing of the seven members of the travel office for purposes of patronage -- no matter how ham-handed -- might seem excessive. Not even Mr. Clinger is alleging any illegality in the firings.

Moreover, the seven employees -- five of whom were reinstated to jobs with other agencies -- concede that they served at the pleasure of the president.

Yet the story doesn't go away. It has attracted the interest of two special prosecutors, largely because Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who killed himself, cited his unease with this issue in a suicide note.

But mostly, the issue seems to resonate because of its age-old story line: It puts the issue of arrogance in government on a scale ordinary people can understand.

More than $120,000 has been raised to help defray Mr. Dale's legal bills, which exceed $500,000. The money comes from former colleagues, Secret Service agents, reporters, cameramen, one former president (Gerald R. Ford) and dozens of strangers.

"They write notes, sometimes just with a few rumpled $1 bills," says Connie Gerrard, a former White House aide who set up the fund. "They say they don't like injustice."

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