Independent counsel Robert W. Ray Thursday said there is “substantial evidence” showing that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton played a role in the firing of White House travel office workers despite her sworn denials, but he will not bring charges in the case.
In a statement, Mr. Ray said his office determined it could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that “any of Mrs. Clinton’s statements and testimony regarding her involvement in the travel office firings were knowingly false.”
As a result, he “declined prosecution” of Mrs. Clinton, now a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in New York.
“The matter is now closed,” he said, adding that a final report will be submitted to a federal court, where those named will have an opportunity to respond a process that could delay a public release of the document for several months.
The White House released a statement criticizing the independent counsel for the length and expense of the probe, often referred to as “Travelgate.”
“After seven years and the expense of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, the independent counsel confirms what we have said all along; there is no evidence that the first lady did anything wrong. In fact, the independent counsel confirms what the president and first lady have always said about this matter,” the statement said.
“Moreover, by innappropriately characterizing the results of a legally sealed report through innuendo, the office of the independent counsel has further politicized an investigation that has dragged on far too long.”
Mr. Ray, however, openly criticized the White House for what he described as “substantial resistance” in turning over “relevant evidence” sought by investigators in the lengthy travel office probe.
“The White House asserted unfounded privileges that were later rejected in court,” he said. “White House officials also conducted inadequate searches for documents and failed to make timely production of documents, including relevant e-mails.”
In March, he cleared Mrs. Clinton in connection with the so-called “Filegate” investigation, saying there was no evidence to show that she or other senior White House officials were involved in a scheme to obtain 900 secret FBI files of former Reagan and Bush administration officials.
He said at the time that his office had concluded the investigation and “no prosecutions were warranted.”
In the “Travelgate” probe, a federal grand jury in Washington heard testimony from FBI agents in 1997 concerning a suspected conspiracy involving top White House officials, including Mrs. Clinton, to cover up the May 1993 firing of seven travel office workers.
Five were rehired later when the charges proved unfounded and one retired. The seventh, director Billy R. Dale, was charged with embezzlement, but was later acquitted by a jury.
White House aide David Watkins said in a memo he felt “pressure from above” to fire the workers and that pressure came from Hollywood producer and Clinton friend Harry Thomason.
Mr. Watkins told the House Government Reform Committee that Mrs. Clinton gave no specific order to fire the workers, but made it clear in a May 1993 phone call that that was his only option. He said the first lady 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.”
White House Deputy Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. oversaw the Travelgate episode and questioned the firing of the seven-member staff.
“Odds small there will be smoking gun,” he wrote in one of his diaries, revealing that Mrs. Clinton was involved and the White House had taken steps to protect her.
In one diary, Mr. Foster wrote, “Defend/HRC role whatever is, was in fact or might have been.” Mr. Foster, whose 1993 death has been ruled a suicide, also questioned accusations that Mr. Dale embezzled cash, saying there were other “plausible” explanations.
Mrs. Clinton said under oath she “did not have a hand in making the decision” to fire the workers, although they were justified since the accounting firm of Peat Marwick had found financial mismanagement. But the Watkins memo said Mrs. Clinton sought the firings two days before Peat Marwick was hired to conduct the audit.
In his statement, Mr. Ray disputed Mrs. Clinton’s sworn statements that she had nothing to do with the firing of Mr. Dale and the six others. He said the investigation showed she discussed the firings with Mr. Foster, Mr. Thomason, Mr. Watkins and former White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty III.
Named in October to succeed Kenneth W. Starr, Mr. Ray said the talks with Mr. Watkins “ultimately influenced” the decision to fire the travel office employees.
“Nevertheless, the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that any of Mrs. Clinton’s statements and testimony regarding her involvement in the travel office firings were knowingly false,” he said.
Among the agents who testified in the Travelgate matter before the grand jury was Howard Apple, who according to an FBI internal review of its handling of the Travelgate affair was told by William Kennedy III, who worked in the White House counsel’s office, that the travel office matter was being managed by officials at the “highest level” of the White House.
Mr. Kennedy, who has left the administration to return to Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, denied telling Mr. Apple that the matter was being overseen by top White House officials.
But the FBI’s internal review shows that on May 13, 1993, Mr. Apple told Mr. Kennedy that an agent from the Washington field office would be dispatched to meet with him to discuss a possible investigation of the travel office, but that Mr. Kennedy “insisted that an FBI headquarters manager meet with him, noting that the matter to be discussed was extremely sensitive and being directed by the ‘highest level’ at the White House.”
The bureau then dispatched Mr. Apple and Patrick Foran, both FBI unit chiefs, who met with Mr. Kennedy. The internal review said Mr. Kennedy repeated that discussion about the travel office “being directed at the ‘highest level’ at the White House and immediate action was required.”
Later that same day, according to the review, unit chief Richard Wade and Supervisory Special Agent Thomas Carl met with Mr. Kennedy to discuss his allegations against the travel office workers.
On May 14, 1993, after a briefing by the FBI, Justice Department prosecutor Joseph Gangloff, acting chief of the department’s public integrity section, decided there was sufficient basis for the FBI to begin a criminal investigation of the travel office allegations.