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Former Travel Office Chief Acquitted : Courts: Billy Dale had been charged with embezzlement. He says he used funds paid to the White House unit to defray costs for journalists.

November 17, 1995|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Billy R. Dale, a White House official fired for allegedly mismanaging staff and press travel arrangements, was acquitted Thursday by a federal court jury of charges that he embezzled $68,000.

Culminating a 13-day trial, jurors decided in less than two hours that federal prosecutors had failed to prove charges that Dale stole funds paid to his office by reporters and photographers who traveled with the President.

A White House employee for more than 30 years, Dale broke into tears as the verdict was announced.

Dale, 58, was at the center of a Clinton Administration travel office fiasco two years ago that resulted in seven employees being fired, and later in reprimands for those responsible for the dismissals.

The 1993 dismissals were inspired by complaints of mismanagement from Catherine Cornelius, a distant cousin of the President, and Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, a close friend of Clinton's.

Cornelius wanted a more powerful job in the travel office, and Thomason was seeking a federal aviation contract.

Taking the witness stand in his own defense during the trial, Dale acknowledged that he exercised poor judgment in putting 55 "refund checks" totaling $54,000 through his own bank account. But he insisted he had used the money to defray costs of future trips because news executives had complained about soaring expenses.

The 55 checks were refunds that the travel office received primarily from telephone and bus companies that had overbilled for services provided on prior presidential trips. Dale acknowledged he should have given those checks directly to the news organizations.

He testified that he made similar use of $14,000 from the office's petty cash fund.

Federal prosecutors tried to convince jurors that Dale and his wife spent all those funds on developing and furnishing a lakefront vacation home in Virginia.

But they were unable to show a clear connection, and the defense countered by portraying Dale as a man of modest lifestyle who was widely trusted by veteran reporters.

In fact, defense attorney Steven Tabackman argued that informal, off-the-book records and notations kept by Dale could prove that he spent the money legitimately.

But these records disappeared after Dale and his six subordinates were abruptly fired in May, 1993, he said.

Suggesting that these records may have been a casualty of politics, Tabackman recounted testimony that Cornelius began work in the office after Dale had seen his files the last time.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler would not permit defense attorneys to delve into circumstances of the dismissals.

A Justice Department official who looked into the matter told a congressional hearing last month that the firings were "ill-advised and erroneous."

Five of Dale's subordinates later were rehired for other government jobs, and one of them chose to retire.

Eighteen months later, Dale was indicted for embezzlement.

Clinton, at a brief meeting with reporters Thursday afternoon, said there had been "some problems" in the travel office "but also clearly some serious problems in the way it was handled by the White House."

The President added: "I'm very sorry about what Mr. Dale had to go through, and I wish him well."

Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.), who chaired a recent House hearing on the travel office, reacted to the verdict by saying, "What started as a botched takeover for political cronies ends today with a jury rejecting a transparently political prosecution."

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