- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2000

Hillary Rodham Clinton played a key role in the firings of seven White House travel office workers and later gave false testimony in denying her involvement, but she won't be prosecuted.

Independent counsel Robert W. Ray, in a final report released yesterday, said the first lady's sworn testimony denying any involvement in the firings was "factually inaccurate."

Nevertheless, he concluded he could not win a case against the first lady before a Washington jury, where the Clintons are popular and where juries have a history of leniency with defendants.

"The overwhelming evidence establishes that she played a role in the decision to fire the employees and provided input into that decision," the report said. "Thus, her statement to the contrary under oath was factually false.

"The evidence, however, is insufficient to show that Mrs. Clinton knowingly intended to influence the travel office decision… . Thus, absent persuasive, corroborated and admissible evidence to the contrary, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Clinton's statements were knowingly false."

The report chronicles an elaborate White House effort to replace travel office workers with friends and cronies of the Clinton administration including Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, who first urged Mrs. Clinton to get involved.

Mrs. Clinton denied under oath to a House committee, Mr. Ray's office and the General Accounting Office that she had any involvement in the firings of the seven workers, including the office's director, Billy R. Dale, who later was charged with embezzlement.

Mr. Dale, acquitted in the case by a jury in Washington, said yesterday he was "disappointed" with the decision not to prosecute the first lady.

"Everyone, especially Robert Ray, knows Hillary Clinton lied under oath about her role in firing me and my colleagues," he said. "It is disappointing that the Office of Independent Counsel, which is charged with enforcing the law, would not prosecute her simply because of a fear of what a Washington, D.C., jury might do."

The report, released just 20 days before the election, is expected to be raised by Republicans in that closely fought race. The first lady dismissed the findings at a campaign stop in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Most New Yorkers and Americans have made up their minds about this," she said. Asked whether she was concerned about the report's release so close to the election, she said, "That's something I have no control over."

Her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, told reporters, "We believe that character counts in public service and … we believe that integrity needs to be restored in our public servants."

The 243-page report was released by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which oversees the independent counsel's office. It was made public after parties named in the document had time to review it and respond.

The report was given to the court in June by Mr. Ray, who said at the time that Mrs. Clinton played a role in the travel office firings despite her sworn denials, but that he would not bring charges.

In a written response to the report, Mrs. Clinton's attorney, David E. Kendall, disagreed that his client's testimony was false.

"The suggestion that Mrs. Clinton's testimony was 'factually inaccurate' as to her role in this matter is contradicted by the final report itself, which recognizes she may not have even been aware of any influence she may have had on the firing decision," he said.

"The OIC's choice of language is thus highly unfair and misleading," he said. "It is regrettable that the final report could not have been as fair as it is lengthy."

The White House, in a statement, said the report "confirms what we have long said: There were financial improprieties in the travel office, the firings were lawful, and the decision to remove the travel office employees was made by White House staff, not the first lady."

The travel office workers were fired in 1993 after Bill Clinton took office. Because they served at the pleasure of the president, they could have been terminated without cause. But the administration sought to justify the firings by calling in the FBI to investigate accusations of financial improprieties.

The independent counsel's office, then led by Kenneth W. Starr, received jurisdiction in the case in January 1996, after a memo by White House aide David Watkins surfaced showing that he felt "pressure from above" to fire the workers.

He told the House Government Reform Committee that Mrs. Clinton gave no specific order for the firings, but made it clear in a May 1993 phone call that that was his only option.

Mr. Watkins said Mrs. Clinton told him, "We should get our people in and get those people out." His memo said there would be "hell to pay" if he did not fire the travel office workers "in conformity with the first lady's wishes."

But in July 1995, Mrs. Clinton told the independent counsel's office in a sworn deposition at the White House that she had no role in the firings.

Portions of a transcript of that testimony were released for the first time as part of the Ray report. They show that when the first lady was asked if she had any role in the firings, she responded: "No, I did not." When asked if she had any input in the decision, she said: "I don't believe I did, no."

"Who ultimately made the decision, to the extent that you know, to fire the employees from the travel office," investigators asked Mrs. Clinton.

"Well, the best I know is David Watkins and [then-White House Chief of Staff] Mack McLarty, I assume, based on what I have learned since and read in the newspapers," she said.

After the firings, the White House ordered an internal review, which was handled by Deputy Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., Mrs. Clinton's former law partner in Arkansas.

Ultimately, the White House apologized, saying the firings had been mishandled. Five of the seven employees were offered new government jobs. Several White House aides were reprimanded. Mr. Foster later committed suicide.

According to the report, Mrs. Clinton discussed "fiscal mismanagement" in the travel office with Mr. McLarty, Mr. Foster, Mr. Thomason and Mr. Watkins, saying she was wanted to know whether appropriate personnel actions should be taken. It was that concern, the report said, that ultimately led to the decision by Mr. Watkins to dismiss the employees.

• Steve Miller contributed to this article.

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