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White House Travel Office Probe Heats Up in Congress

Investigation: After verdicts in Whitewater trial, House Republicans are threatening a contempt resolution in order to obtain more documents.

May 30, 1996|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Emboldened by guilty verdicts in the Whitewater fraud trial in Arkansas, House Republicans prepared Wednesday to escalate their dispute with the White House over access to travel office records.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) threatened to bring a contempt-of-Congress resolution to the House floor by Friday unless the president's aides begin negotiations on the matter. But the White House held firm Wednesday.

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee voted three weeks ago, along straight party lines, to hold White House counsel Jack Quinn and two former presidential aides--David Watkins and Matthew Moore--in contempt of Congress for refusing to release documents subpoenaed in January.

Rep. William F. Clinger (R-Pa.), the committee chairman, said Wednesday that the White House has refused to talk about the dispute unless the panel rescinds its vote. Clinger said that the panel would not back down.

"It's not my objective to put anyone in jail or have anyone fined," Clinger said. "But seeking a criminal contempt citation is really the only way we have to go to obtain these documents. A civil proceeding would take months if not years."

Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, however, has asked Clinger to refrain from seeking the documents because they might reveal information related to his criminal investigation into the firings. Starr made the request in a letter last week to Clinger, after his committee voted on the contempt motion.

The committee has been investigating the firing of seven veteran travel office employees in May 1993, an episode that the White House conceded later was a mistake. In a separate inquiry, Starr is investigating whether Watkins perjured himself before Congress to conceal the role of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the firings.

White House special counsel Mark D. Fabiani called the House contempt proceeding "a political sideshow."

"I don't think this dispute is going to be resolved," Fabiani said. "We have worked out every document dispute up until now with Mr. Clinger, but this one is motivated by pure partisan politics.

"They're asking for documents prepared in connection with the independent counsel's investigation and documents we drafted in order to get ready for Mr. Clinger's own hearings," Fabiani continued. "We have already turned over every document that has anything to do with the travel office firings."

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has agreed with President Clinton that the latest records sought by Clinger are protected by executive privilege because they deal with internal White House deliberations and shed no substantive light on the travel office matter.

"We'll be turning over some that the attorney general has cleared," Fabiani said. "But this probably is not going to solve the problem because I think this is a political dispute."

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters: "Chairman Clinger has 40,000 pages worth of paper and, you know, he all but wants the roll of toilet paper in the men's room here."

Clinger said that some of the subpoenaed documents could shed additional light on the role of Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, a longtime friend of the Clintons who had sought a share of the White House travel business.

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