WASHINGTON — FBI Director William S. Sessions, who stubbornly refused to resign despite Justice Department ethics findings that he abused his office, was fired Monday by President Clinton--the first time a director of the storied agency has been dismissed.
Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, steeling the Administration against claims that the decision was politically motivated, used unmistakably blunt language to describe Sessions' failings. Reno "has reported to me in no uncertain terms that he can no longer effectively lead the bureau and law enforcement community," Clinton said, adding that he fully agreed with her recommendation to replace Sessions immediately.
Clinton is expected to announce today that he plans to nominate U.S. District Court Judge Louis J. Freeh of New York, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, to succeed Sessions. Clinton met with Freeh for 90 minutes Friday night.
"With a change in management in the FBI, we can now give the crime fighters the leadership they deserve," Clinton said. Administration officials said Monday that they know of no other candidate under consideration for the post.
Clinton dismissed Sessions after the director rejected Administration entreaties to resign, contending that to voluntarily step down would violate the principle of an independent FBI. The FBI director is appointed to a 10-year term but serves at the pleasure of the President.
Sessions was appointed 5 1/2 years ago by former President Ronald Reagan.
"We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI," Clinton said at a White House press conference. "It is time that this difficult chapter in the agency's history is brought to a close."
With Senate confirmation of the next FBI director not likely before fall, Clinton said that Deputy Director Floyd I. Clarke would serve as acting director. Sessions' wife, Alice, has repeatedly accused Clarke of leading an internal cabal to force her husband from office, and Sessions has publicly questioned Clarke's loyalty.
At his press conference, Clinton rejected the suggestion that Sessions fell victim to an internal vendetta and responded "absolutely not" when asked if the removal of Sessions would create the impression that the FBI is being subjected to political pressures.
Clinton cited the six-month-old highly critical report on Sessions' conduct by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigated the director in the final year of the George Bush Administration.
Clinton noted that the attorney general had studied the findings and thoroughly reviewed Sessions' leadership.
Reno said that, when she took office last March, then acting Atty. Gen. Stuart Gerson, a Republican holdover, advised her that Sessions "had exhibited flawed judgment which had an adverse effect within the FBI."
But Reno said she wanted to make her own independent assessment of Sessions' ability to lead the FBI, noting that she felt very strongly that the FBI director "should be above politics and not automatically subject to replacement with a change of administrations."
The Justice Department report found, among other things, that Sessions had engaged in a sham transaction to avoid paying taxes on his use of an FBI limousine to take him to and from work, that he had billed the government for a security fence around his home that provided no security and that he had arranged business trips to places where he could meet with relatives.
Sessions dismissed the findings as biased and said that they resulted from "animus" toward him by former Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, who--on his last day in office last January--presented the report to Sessions with orders to take remedial actions.
In addition to the sections of the report that have been released, the investigation looked into whether Sessions had accepted a "sweetheart" deal on his home loan from a Washington bank and into other matters that have not been made public, sources familiar with it said.
Reno said that she reviewed "all the circumstances," including the Office of Professional Responsibility report and responses to it submitted by Sessions. Her conclusions, couched in language even stronger than Clinton's, were detailed in a letter to the President that she read aloud at the press conference.
"I have concluded that the director has exhibited a serious deficiency in judgment involving matters contained in the report and that he does not command the respect and confidence needed to lead the bureau and the law enforcement community in addressing the many issues facing law enforcement today," she wrote.
Sessions, in a prepared statement, said that "because of scurrilous attacks on me and my wife of 42 years it has been decided by others that I can no longer be as forceful as I need to be in leading the FBI and carrying out my responsibilities to the bureau and the nation.