WASHINGTON — FBI Director William S. Sessions, in the midst of a Justice Department investigation that eventually concluded he misused his powers for personal benefit, flew on an FBI jet with his wife to San Francisco to spend last Christmas with their daughter, the FBI acknowledged Thursday.
FBI spokesmen stressed that Sessions plans to reimburse the government $700 for the "personal" trip, which included a refueling stopover in Kansas City at Sessions' request. Kansas City is the hometown of Sessions' wife, Alice. While there, the couple dined at the Italian Gardens restaurant with Alice Sessions' relatives and distributed Christmas gifts.
The reimbursement--at "supersaver" rates--will cover only a small portion of the trip's actual costs, which included $1,050 to fly two FBI pilots commercially round trip from San Francisco to Washington. This allowed the pilots to return to their homes while Sessions and his wife--and the plane--remained in the Bay Area for six days.
An FBI spokesman said that the cost of sending the pilots back and forth to Washington commercially at government rates was about $350 less than the $1,400 it would have cost to put them up in San Francisco from Dec. 22 to Dec. 28.
FBI sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said that they were disturbed by Sessions' Christmas travel because he chose to go knowing that his use of the FBI plane was under scrutiny by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility as part of a larger ethics investigation.
In the seven-month probe, the watchdog unit found last month that Sessions abused his office. Adopting the report and its conclusions on his last day in office, former Atty. Gen. William P. Barr ordered Sessions and the FBI to take corrective action.
The abuses cited in the report included a sham arrangement to avoid paying taxes on his use of a limousine for home-to-office transportation, insisting on a privacy fence at his home that actually reduced his security and refusing to cooperate in an investigation seeking to determine whether he received a "sweetheart" deal on his $375,000 home mortgage.
The investigation found that Sessions "was oblivious to the appearance of impropriety resulting from his official travel to locations where he had family. The frequency alone of such trips suggests their real purpose was for personal visits."
The report was particularly critical of Sessions' flights to San Francisco, where his daughter lives. It noted that from 1987--when he took command of the FBI--to 1991, he traveled there at Christmastime on official business every year but one: 1990, when his daughter spent the holidays in Washington.
Sessions has challenged the report, and President Clinton's spokesmen have said that the findings and Sessions' responses will be reviewed by Bernard Nussbaum, counsel to the President.
The investigation of Sessions is not over. The Justice Department is still trying to close gaps in the probe of Sessions' mortgage.
Obeying an order by Barr, Sessions and his wife have signed waivers permitting Riggs National Bank to provide access to their mortgage information. But the bank has insisted on a similar waiver before allowing its employees to be questioned, it was learned.
Commenting on Sessions' flight last Christmas, John Collingwood, the FBI's chief spokesman, described it as "a personal trip billed at commercial rates, consistent with applicable travel regulations."
Sessions decided to make the personal trip in an FBI jet because of security considerations, Collingwood said. "Without question, security is foremost, and the FBI requires use of FBI aircraft whenever feasible. The FBI makes decisions about (Sessions') security, and cost is only one factor in that decision."
Sessions has defended his use of the FBI limousine and aircraft on the grounds that he is in "a security envelope."
Collingwood had no comment on First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Jan. 26 flight to New York on a commercial shuttle and a commercial flight that former First Lady Barbara Bush took to Indianapolis two years ago to help calm public fears about terrorism related to the Persian Gulf War.
"It is the director's security we're focused on here," Collingwood said.
Choosing to touch down in Kansas City rather than Salina, Kan., a more frequent refueling stop, "did not affect the cost and gave the director the opportunity to visit the FBI family in Kansas City," Collingwood said.
Sessions visited the Kansas City FBI office for about 30 minutes, then spent about 1 1/2 hours at the family dinner at the nearby restaurant, an FBI spokesman said. Sessions did not attempt to represent the trip as official because the office visit was not included when the trip was first planned, the spokesman said.