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National Perspective | UPDATE

Report Concludes Mrs. Clinton Had Role in Firing Travel Staff

October 19, 2000|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Despite her denials, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton played a significant role in the 1993 White House Travel Office firings but may not have knowingly perjured herself, the Whitewater independent counsel concluded in a report released Wednesday.

The final report of independent counsel Robert W. Ray mirrors the analysis he released in June. Ray, the successor to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, announced then that he was not bringing charges against Mrs. Clinton in the case.

But coming just three weeks before the Nov. 7 election, the full report threatened to cloud Mrs. Clinton's down-to-the-wire battle for a U.S. Senate seat in New York.

Her opponent, Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, immediately seized on Ray's findings.

"We believe that character counts in public service," Lazio said. "The rule of law applies to all of us and not just to some of us."

But Mrs. Clinton dismissed the findings during a campaign stop in Syracuse, N.Y., saying that "most New Yorkers and Americans have made up their minds about this." Asked if she was concerned about the report's release so close to the election, she added: "That's something I have no control over."

The full report, totaling more than 400 pages, represents the most expansive public examination to date of the scandal surrounding the May 1993 firing of seven White House employees responsible for making travel arrangements for the press.

The Clintons withstood fierce criticism over charges that they had engaged in shameless cronyism, essentially sacking low-level White House bureaucrats so they could put their own people into the jobs. White House officials maintained at the time that the firings were prompted by evidence of financial mismanagement and wrongdoing by the staff.

But the White House later admitted that it had erred in the firings and five of the employees were rehired. Several other employees who had pushed for changes in the travel office were reprimanded and the former travel office director was acquitted on criminal embezzlement charges.

When Mrs. Clinton was asked in a 1995 deposition whether she had any role in the firings, she testified: "No, I did not."

Because the travel office staff served at the pleasure of the president, there was never any question about the legality of the firings. The question before Ray was whether Mrs. Clinton and others had lied under oath about their roles.

"The answer is simple," Ray said in his report. "The evidence is insufficient to prove a cover-up involving any violations of federal law."

Ray, citing eight conversations that Mrs. Clinton had with senior White House staff members and advisors, said there is "overwhelming evidence" that she played a part in the firings.

Presidential aide David Watkins told the FBI that Mrs. Clinton told him in a phone conversation that action needed "to be taken immediately to be certain those not friendly to the administration were removed and replaced with trustworthy individuals," the report says.

Ray concluded that "Mrs. Clinton's input into the process was a significant--if not the significant--factor influencing the pace of events in the travel office firings and the ultimate decision to fire the employees."

At the same time, however, the evidence is insufficient to prove that Mrs. Clinton "knowingly" gave false statements under oath about her role in the controversy, he said. The Clintons' attorney, David E. Kendall, applauded the decision not to seek charges against Mrs. Clinton as "entirely appropriate, however long in coming."

But it was "unfair and misleading" for Ray to conclude that Mrs. Clinton's testimony was "factually inaccurate," Kendall said. That finding "is contradicted by the final report itself, which recognizes that she may not even have been aware of any influence she may have had on the firing decision," he added.

The White House said in a statement that "this matter has been investigated for nearly 7 1/2 years by Congress and various prosecutors. This report should close the matter once and for all."

*

Times staff writer Josh Getlin in New York contributed to this story.

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