WASHINGTON -- Abruptly withdrawing a White House commitment, President Clinton said yesterday that the government should not necessarily reimburse fired White House travel office head Billy R. Dale for his legal fees.
"I never gave my word on that," Clinton testily told reporters.
But on Jan. 30, asked if the president would agree to legislation authorizing such a payment to Dale and six other fired travel office employees, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said flatly, "Yes, he would sign it."
That statement had never been challenged by White House officials -- and it seemed to dovetail with the sentiments of the president, who last November, after a jury acquitted Dale of wrongdoing, said, "I wish him well."
Clinton's tone was different yesterday. Asked if he would encourage Congress to send him the legislation on reimbursement, which has been stalled in Congress, Clinton lost his temper.
"Are we going to pay the legal expenses of every person in America who is ever acquitted of an offense?" he said heatedly. "I don't believe that we should give special preference to one group of people over others. Do you? Do you?"
As Clinton's passions rose, Vice President Al Gore and chief of staff Leon E. Panetta urgently signaled aides to end the Rose Garden session. As Gore, Panetta and other aides followed him into the Oval Office, the president gestured and shouted in anger.
Later, Clinton apologized to CBS correspondent Bill Plante, who first raised the question, though not to Washington Times reporter Paul Bedard, at whom he directed the "do you?" questions. Clinton blamed his outburst on a lack of sleep since the TWA crash disaster two weeks ago.
Clearly, however, Clinton is angry that the Republicans championing Billy Dale have put White House aides through legal ordeals of their own by forcing them to testify in investigations ranging from the travel office to Whitewater to the FBI files scandal.
"There were a lot of people who were never even charged with anything who have been dragooned and pulled up and had thousands and tens of thousands of dollars of legal expenses who were completely innocent but have been subject to abject harassment," Clinton said.
"So, no, I'm not going to call upon them to bring it up again. If they send it to my desk -- whether I sign it depends on whose legal expenses are included and whether it's a fair and balanced bill."
McCurry was on vacation and could not be reached, but the president's comments took his deputy, Barry Toiv, by surprise. Minutes before the president spoke, Toiv had assured reporters that Clinton supported the bill.
Steven Tabackman, Dale's attorney, said he was "shocked and saddened" by the president's remarks, adding, "I would hope that the president would reconsider."
Dale, whose legal bills exceed $250,000, said, "We're disappointed, but I'll just leave it with what Steve said for now."
Dale's White House service began in the Kennedy administration. He was fired along with his staff in May 1993 by White House operations chief David Watkins.
Although not informed of the allegations against them, the seven were accused of mismanagement by then-White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who said the FBI had been called in after an audit of the office.
Documents later showed that the FBI was called before the audit had been done and that the firings were instigated by Clinton friend Harry Thomason, a Hollywood producer who co-owned an airline company that coveted the White House travel business.
An internal investigation of the firings resulted in reprimands for several White House aides. One of those involved -- though not reprimanded -- was deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., who committed suicide weeks later and left a note showing he was distraught over the episode.
Watkins, who was fired for other reasons, left behind a memo stating that Hillary Rodham Clinton was the one who insisted the seven be fired because she wanted her "own people" in the jobs.
Mrs. Clinton has denied under oath ordering the firings. Her actions and Watkins' are being probed by special Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr.
Dale was later charged by the Justice Department with misappropriating some $68,000 from news organizations that travel with the president. Representatives of those organizations testified as character witnesses at Dale's trial, and he was acquitted.
Since then, several Clinton associates, including lawyer Robert Bennett, disclosed contents of the confidential plea bargaining sessions between Dale and Justice, negotiations in which Dale offered to plead guilty to minor banking charges in return for leniency.
McCurry said in that same Jan. 30 briefing that those leaks were not authorized and that Clinton had discouraged such talk.
But yesterday the president repeated that Dale had offered to plead guilty.
Pub Date: 8/02/96