Commerce Department officials hid from congressional investigators documents showing that the White House helped direct the award of seats on U.S. trade missions to company officials who contributed to President Clinton and the Democratic Party, a department official says in a sworn affidavit.
Sonya Stewart, a career civil servant and former deputy assistant secretary for administration, also said in the affidavit filed Monday in U.S. District Court that White House officials and others “thwarted” efforts by the department to turn over subpoenaed documents concerning the trade missions.
Mrs. Stewart, now chief financial and administrative officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that despite efforts by her staff to comply with congressional, grand jury and other subpoenas for the trade mission documents, those who had the records “refused to cooperate in producing” them.
She said that several key Commerce Department officials were advised directly by the White House to withhold certain documents being sought in the trade mission probe, and that former White House Deputy Counsel Cheryl Mills led that effort.
“I am aware of Commerce officials’ contacts with Cheryl Mills, then deputy counsel to the president, concerning whether to release or withhold certain documents,” Mrs. Stewart said in the seven-page affidavit. “I know that Ms. Mills, in her position as deputy counsel to the president, advised Commerce officials to withhold certain documents.
“In my many years working with the federal government … I have never known or heard of a federal agency collaborating or discussing releasing or withholding documents with White House officials,” she said. “The Commerce Department’s collaboration with White House Deputy Counsel Mills on these matters was, in my experience, highly irregular and at variance with normal procedures.”
The White House did not return calls yesterday for comment, although spokesman Joel Lockhart has previously denied the accusations. Commerce Department spokesman Daniel Cruz also did not respond to inquiries yesterday about the affidavit.
The affidavit is part of a pending lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest law firm that claims the Clinton administration sold seats on Commerce Department trade missions in exchange for political donations.
The law firm asked a federal judge yesterday for an order to question several Commerce and White House officials mentioned in the Stewart affidavit. It also requested that the court admonish the White House and the Commerce Department from any “retaliation or intimidation” of Mrs. Stewart, saying the veteran department official feared for her “personal safety and livelihood as a result of coming forward.”
In her affidavit, Mrs. Stewart said she agreed to testify “with great trepidation and grave concern about retribution and retaliation which may be directed at me, both professionally and personally.” She said, “I hope, believe and expect the court will protect me.”
Mrs. Stewart also said:
The Commerce Department’s Office of General Counsel, contrary to “written and prescribed rules,” refused to turn over records that had been determined “properly responsive and releaseable” by officials in the department’s Freedom of Information Office.
Documents sought under subpoena that had been described by Commerce Department officials as “lost” later were found in a safe in the Office of General Counsel.
Commerce records showed that department officials “did coordinate” with the White House “concerning potential participants in that mission activities, and that Commerce officials considered support for the president and the Democratic Party during their review.”
Some top Commerce Department officials believed that the selling of seats on trade missions was “the tip of the iceberg,” and that the “really big money went towards presidential access.”
There were no security procedures at Commerce to ensure that sensitive and secret documents “which might evidence criminal activity stayed in the building.”