WASHINGTON -- Decrying the Clinton administration's "culture of secrecy," the House committee investigating the White House travel office firings voted yesterday to bring criminal contempt of Congress charges against current and former White House aides for refusing to turn over requested documents.
The 27-19 party-line vote came after the committee was informed that President Clinton would invoke executive privilege to protect the bulk of travel office documents not previously turned over to the panel.
The charges must be approved by the full House before any court action can be taken.
"The President has directed me to inform you that he invokes executive privilege as a protective matter," Jack Quinn, the White House counsel, wrote in a letter to the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.
Mark Fabiani, a White House lawyer, contended that the committee had shown no reason for needing such documents and that the papers were not relevant to the committee's probe.
Quinn, along with two former White House aides, David Watkins and Matthew Moore, were named in the contempt resolution.
So far, the White House has turned over to the committee about 40,000 pages of documents related to the 1993 firing of seven White House travel office employees.
Among those materials was a "soul-cleansing" memo by Watkins in which he suggested that Hillary Rodham Clinton was more responsible for the firings than the first lady has said she was in sworn statements.
The sudden firings caused an uproar at the time because it appeared that the longtime travel office employees had been dismissed on trumped-up charges of incompetence in order to make way for Clinton cronies to take over the travel office work.
Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel investigating Whitewater, recently expanded his investigation to include the travel office affair.
Yesterday, after several hours of contentious debate, the Republican-led committee voted to make good on its threat to bring contempt charges if the rest of the travel office documents were not turned over.
"It is troubling that the president continues to attempt to contain a scandal by invoking executive privilege that has no connection with national security or any vital domestic policy, but at the bottom is a scandal about the character of the presidency," said the committee chairman, Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., a Pennsylvania Republican.
The documents requested by the committee and withheld by the White House include those related to the independent counsel's investigation of the travel office case and those developed for hearings by Clinger's committee.
"They want to simply fish around," Fabiani said. "This has turned from the eighth investigation of the travel office into political harassment. When something becomes naked political harassment, you have no choice but to say enough is enough."
The papers will next be examined, one by one, with Justice Department officials to determine which documents can be covered by executive privilege.
If the contempt of Congress resolution is approved by the full House, it would be turned over to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia for prosecution.
The U.S. attorney would likely refer the matter to Starr, said Edmund Amorosi, a spokesman for the oversight committee.
Contempt of Congress carries a penalty of a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Amorosi said Clinger would wait a "reasonable period of time" before taking the matter to the full House in hopes of resolving the dispute with the White House.
"We don't want to go through a criminal proceeding," he said.
Pub Date: 5/10/96