WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials on Friday denied reports that a White House lawyer had threatened last month to use the Internal Revenue Service to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the White House travel office.
The statements by the justice officials, coupled with a separate denial by the White House on Friday, leaves unanswered the question of what prompted the IRS audit of UltrAir--a Smyrna, Tenn., firm that has handled most of the charter business from the travel office. Presidential spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said that White House aides had done nothing to trigger the audit.
The Washington Post reported Friday that William Kennedy, an associate White House counsel, told FBI supervisor James Bourke on May 13 that problems at the travel office "had to be handled immediately or the matter will be referred to another agency, the IRS." Such a suggestion could be viewed as an attempt to pressure the FBI into starting an investigation.
Kennedy allegedly made the statement six days before the White House fired seven travel office workers. Internal inquiries are now trying to determine whether White House aides tried to use federal investigators to establish that criminal wrongdoing led to the dismissals, which others have charged were actually motivated by political cronyism.
Speaking on "background," which prevents their identification, Justice Department officials gave a version of the Kennedy-Bourke conversation that differed sharply from the Post account, which the newspaper said was based on a May 24 FBI chronology of events it had obtained.
Justice officials contended Friday they could not find a chronology containing the quotations used by the Post. They said Kennedy told Bourke on May 13 that the travel office issue needed to be addressed and asked if it should be referred to the FBI, the Secret Service, the IRS or local police.
Bourke said he took the conversation at face value and regarded Kennedy's remarks as questions and not threats or attempted pressure, a Justice Department official said.
An IRS spokeswoman said the agency's internal investigation will be completed and the results released early next week. She said no evidence has turned up so far to show that the White House had contacted the IRS in the case or that IRS employees had failed to follow proper procedures.
Despite the denials, Republicans stepped up their calls for an independent investigation.
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas likened the White House investigation to "the (Richard) Nixon White House investigating Watergate. Until we have the answers, we have a real crisis of confidence."
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that overseas the IRS, urged IRS Commissioner Margaret M. Richardson to "ensure that no rock is left unturned" in the internal investigation of the matter.