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White House Abruptly Fires Entire Travel Staff : Inquiry: Officials say audit of seven-person office found 'gross mismanagement.' Clinton campaign workers will take over operation.

May 20, 1993|DAVID LAUTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — White House officials Wednesday fired seven government workers who handle travel arrangements for the press on presidential trips after an audit uncovered "gross mismanagement" and possibly as much as a decade's worth of overbilling, Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said.

No criminal charges have been filed, Myers said, but the White House has asked the FBI to look into the matter.

The announcement of the firing of the entire travel staff--and the hiring of two Clinton campaign workers as replacements--generated questions about whether the move was politically motivated, an allegation White House officials heatedly denied.

"That's not why they were fired," Myers said. "They were dismissed--fired today because we found gross mismanagement, a lack of accountability in that office."

The office in question charters airplanes, books hotels and handles other travel arrangements for reporters and staff who accompany the President on trips and for White House employees who travel on commercial flights.

It was reorganized at the beginning of the Ronald Reagan Administration after questions about management led the then-head of the office to take an early retirement.

Among the findings by the accounting firm of KPMG Peat, Marwick were "irregularities" involving $18,000 drawn from a petty cash account controlled by the travel office and insufficient records to document the handling of millions of dollars billed to news organizations that travel on White House trips.

Auditors could find records for only the last 16 months--during which the travel office handled some $10 million in billings--and even those records were incomplete, officials said.

In short, Myers said, the auditors found "no invoice system, very lax accounting principles . . . almost no documentation of money that was coming in and going out, and the records that were there were found to be inadequate."

The incident does not appear to involve mishandling of taxpayer funds, but officials said they believe that news organizations that travel on White House trips may have been overbilled by thousands of dollars.

Administration officials said there is the possibility of more serious improprieties.

Officers of some airline charter companies have told White House aides about rumors that other firms paid kickbacks to secure business with the White House in the past, Administration officials said. However, they cautioned that no evidence of such actions had been uncovered so far.

The White House also contends that the office could have been run more efficiently and said it will hire only three people to replace the seven being fired.

Like other White House employees, the fired workers do not have Civil Service protection, although some have worked for the government for 30 years or more.

One of the seven is eligible to take early retirement. The others will receive two weeks' severance pay and four weeks' administrative leave, Myers said.

Billy Dale, the head of the travel office, said he was flabbergasted by the charges. "I'm just devastated," said Dale, a 31-year White House employee. "They told us we were being let go because they were reorganizing, revamping the office. We accepted that."

One of the replacement workers hired by the White House, Catherine Cornelius, 25, is a distant cousin of Clinton's who handled travel bookings during the campaign. Cornelius was associated with World Wide Travel, a travel agency based in Little Rock, Ark. A second of the new employees is also a former campaign aide.

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