Hillary Clinton remains embroiled in email and pay-for-play scandals from her days as secretary of state, but as first lady she also fell into questionable behavior that dogged her husband’s first term.
The scandals were known as Travelgate and Filegate, and both set off extensive investigations, resignations, charges and countercharges of lying, file-scrubbing and unethical conduct.
The early 1990s shared issues and people with 2016: Twenty years ago, there were the Clintons, of course. There was the “politicization” of the FBI, as one committee report put it. Mrs. Clinton’s staunch defender, Lanny Davis, appeared on TV blasting her critics, as he does today.
The conservative watchdog Judicial Watch sued the Clinton administration then, as it has done more recently, to compel disclosure of her State Department emails, of which more than 30,000 were destroyed — off-limits to the FBI. In the 1990s, White House files also went missing.
“FBI leadership has a long history of kowtowing to the Clintons,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “And it meant that front-line FBI agents were either boxed in, abused or hung out to dry. Nothing has changed in 20 years. If anything, the Clintons have perfected the art of intimidating federal law enforcement.”
One of those “boxed in” agents was Dennis Sculimbrene, now 74 and living miles from Washington in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He became a star witness against the White House, which quickly made him persona non grata. As an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter, Mr. Davis, then a New York lawyer, called Mr. Sculimbrene a “noncredible liar.”
“I would agree that this happened 20 years ago, but the actors are the same,” Mr. Sculimbrene told The Washington Times.
Mr. Fitton says the FBI bowed to the Clintons back then just as they did in the investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s private email server and mishandling of the nation’s secrets. FBI Director James B. Comey said she was “extremely careless” in using a nonsecure private email server for official business, but would not be charged.
His statement sounded the same tone as an independent counsel who concluded in 2000 that Mrs. Clinton made “factually false” statements to investigators but there was not enough evidence to charge her with perjury.
“When I heard Comey, I thought of [then-FBI Director] Louis Freeh and how they caved into HRC defense of her political career at the expense of the FBI’s reputation,” said Mr. Sculimbrene, the top agent at the White House when the Clintons arrived in January 1993.
Mr. Sculimbrene soon found himself as a witness against the Clintons and demonized by her surrogates — and by his FBI colleagues.
White House Counsel Jack Quinn wrote to the FBI calling the agent a liar. Mr. Davis, on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 1996, said Mr. Sculimbrene falsified a memo to implicate Mrs. Clinton in Filegate.
By 1996, the Vietnam War veteran and former Air Force pilot became a retired FBI agent. He was shown the door at age 54. He said a supervisor told him that Mrs. Clinton “wants you out. You make her uncomfortable.”
One of the first bold moves by the Clinton White House was to wipe clean the travel office, firing all seven employees including its founder, Billy Dale. The office arranged presidential travel and chartered aircraft when needed.
The sackings brought charges that Mrs. Clinton had ordered the personnel massacre to hire her cronies, a Hollywood couple, and exert control over all support staff.
Mr. Dale, a longtime civil servant, suddenly found himself under criminal investigation by the FBI and charged with embezzling $68,000.
This episode and others compelled William Safire, in-house Republican columnist at The New York Times, to call Mrs. Clinton a “congenital liar.”
A House committee report told of memos known to exist that were suddenly missing.
Seven years after Travelgate erupted, independent counsel Robert W. Ray issued a final report saying there was “substantial evidence” that Mrs. Clinton played a role in the firings, despite her denials, and that she provided “factually false” sworn statements.
But he concluded that there was “insufficient” evidence to prove Mrs. Clinton “made any knowingly false statements, committed perjury or obstructed justice.”
Mr. Ray also scolded the White House for its “substantial resistance” in turning over evidence.
In 1995, it took a jury less than two hours to find Mr. Dale not guilty of embezzlement.
Mr. Sculimbrene further irked the White House by taking the unusual step of testifying in Mr. Dale’s defense. He believed his bosses generated a flimsy case to vindicate and protect the Clintons.
Congress’ probe into Travelgate turned up a new scandal. An ex-bar bouncer and Democratic Party operative, Craig Livingstone, landed the prestigious job of director of White House personnel security.
He began requesting that the FBI provide sensitive personnel background files on Republicans and former White House people — 900 in all — for no discernible reason.
Republicans quickly charged dirty tricks, theorizing that as the only reason why someone so unqualified would be given such a prestigious position.
Mr. Sculimbrene cemented his status as a White House insurgent after he told investigators that he believed it was Mrs. Clinton who wanted Mr. Livingstone hired. If true, it would be a black mark on the first lady’s judgment.
The Republican-run House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded in 1996: “In general, the FBI files issue shows a lack of respect by the Clinton administration for proper security procedures to protect both the President of the United States and the national security.”
The committee accused the Clintons of politicizing the FBI. For example, the bureau’s general counsel owned a special White House pass, alerted the Clintons to the committee’s investigation, helped their staff write a letter to Director Freeh and provided a manuscript of former FBI agent Gary Aldrich’s unflattering, yet-to-be-released book, “Unlimited Access.”
The committee unearthed a 1993 memo from Mr. Sculimbrene that quoted White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum as saying Mr. Livingstone had “come highly recommended by Hillary Clinton.” This contradicted Mr. Nussbaum’s public version. Upon hearing this, the FBI general counsel dispatched agents to the recently retired Mr. Sculimbrene’s home for questioning.
“The sending of agents to Sculimbrene’s home involved [the general counsel] in an operational matter, which is inappropriate for the general counsel,” the House committee said.
Mr. Sculimbrene testified before the committee. He portrayed the Clinton White House as disorganized. Requests for background investigations of potential Cabinet members and other officials usually start arriving at the FBI a month before the presidential inauguration. With the Clintons, they did not start arriving until July — backdated. Some nominees failed to cooperate. Some used illegal drugs right up until the time they filled out an FBI form.
The Clintons first blamed Filegate on the Secret Service and FBI, then on a file clerk. Mr. Nussbaum testified that he did not know who hired Mr. Livingstone, to which a Republican congressman said everyone knows who hires them for a job.
Despite the scathing committee report, Mrs. Clinton fared better in this fiasco with Mr. Ray, the independent counsel. He found no evidence of criminality and accepted the White House explanation that the file transfer was a bureaucratic bungle, not a conspiracy to find dirt on Republicans.
Amid the Travelgate scandal in 1994, Mr. Sculimbrene was working on his private plane when he accidentally started the engine, sending a propeller blade slicing into his head.
He suffered an open skull fracture and was air-evacuated to Fairfax Hospital. The damage caused post-traumatic stress disorder, deep depression, anxiety and severe insomnia. He lost vision and could not read or do math. But he defied odds and recovered, and returned to the White House that summer.
“Only God knows why or how just pushing back on the prop started an engine that had not started in three weeks, but it did, until it met my head,” Mr. Sculimbrene told The Times. “My genes come from Calabria, Italy, who are known as ‘hard heads.’ A prop is like a butter knife. It’s not sharp enough to cut your steak, but with 180 pounds of horsepower, it’s enough to break your skull and enter your brain.”
His professional life went downhill. His doctor advised an FBI nurse to restrict his physical duties, but the FBI ignored that, according to a slander lawsuit that Judicial Watch filed on his behalf. Supervisors sent him on trips, contrary to his physician’s advice, and made him work the night shift.
In February 1996, the FBI notified him that he was under investigation for misuse of a government parking pass. The probe, his attorney said, was based on a single anonymous letter. In April, the FBI terminated his White House job, formally banned him from the Executive Office Building and ordered him to the field office in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.
With Filegate in full throttle on Capitol Hill, Mr. Davis appeared on cable TV shows to paint the agent as a lair when it came to what Mr. Nussbaum had said.
“Whatever smacked him in the head has affected his credibility,” Mr. Davis told CNBC’s Geraldo Rivera, referring to the propeller gash.
Today, Mr. Sculimbrene makes this point: The interview with Mr. Nussbaum, in which he quoted him as saying Mrs. Clinton wanted Mr. Livingstone to get the job, was conducted in May 1993, seven months before his accident.
Mr. Sculimbrene was forced to retire. Mr. Nussbaum had quit in 1994, followed by Mr. Livingstone.
The Judicial Watch lawsuit alleged that Mr. Quinn, the White House counsel, Mr. Davis and others “intentionally, maliciously and wrongfully conspired to injure” the former agent.
Mr. Sculimbrene sought millions of dollars in damages but in 2003 settled with the FBI and Justice Department for $85,000.
“I was called a partisan right-winger,” he said.
Of Mrs. Clinton, he recalls that she bristled at talk of any FBI investigation.
“My best story about HRC was when I interviewed the spouse of one of HRC’s best college classmates. Both he and I found FBI’s request for a copy of his high school diploma. The catch was it was made on sheepskin, and part of a display on his wall at home. Even though he had sent a copy of his high school records, which indicated he had taken all courses required for graduation, and passed them, headquarters insisted on sending an agent to photograph the sheepskin,” Mr. Sculimbrene said.
“Later, while in his office, he approached me and said that he had a private Easter dinner with Hillary Clinton, the president and his spouse. He thought it would be a good story, and the president and his wife laughed. However, Hillary Clinton was really upset when she heard the story. She apparently didn’t think much of the FBI conducting investigations, and this was an example of the FBI’s intelligence,” he said.
The Clintons left the White House much the same way as they came in. Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Mark Rich, who was evading arrest by living in Europe. His ex-wife made large donations to the Democratic Party and gave $450,000 to what was then the Clinton Foundation and its goal of building a library.
That same foundation would grow into a $3 billion global charity, taking money from world leaders, banks and government contractors. Conservative journalists say Mrs. Clinton rewarded some of those donors with special access at the State Department.
Out the door, the Clintons took White House furniture back to Arkansas. When caught, they had to return some pieces.
ABC News reported at the time: “After they were criticized for taking $190,000 worth of china, flatware, rugs, televisions, sofas and other gifts with them when they left, the Clintons announced last week that they would pay for $86,000 worth of gifts, or nearly half the amount. Their latest decision to send back $28,000 in gifts brings to $114,000 the value of items the Clintons have either decided to pay for or return.”
Some Clinton staffers maliciously damaged White House computers that were to be used by the incoming George W. Bush administration.