Former aide says firings were his call

taking picture

But Watkins felt first lady pushed
for dismissal of travel office staff

January 17, 1996
Web posted at: 3:43 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Testifying on Capitol Hill, former White House aide David Watkins took responsibility Wednesday for the controversial decision to fire the entire White House travel office staff in 1993.

David Watkins

"I was the one to make the decision to fire the travel office. The first lady did not order me to fire them," Watkins told members of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which is investigating the scandal that has become known as "Travelgate."

But he added: "Did I feel pressure? Yes, I did."

Republicans say memos written by Watkins put the blame on Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has denied any role in the dismissals. One of the memos says "there will be hell to pay" if Mrs. Clinton's wishes weren't followed regarding travel office staff. In another memo released by the committee Wednesday morning, Watkins wrote that he believed the first lady wanted the travel office staff "fired immediately and out of here by the end of the day."

At Watkins' request, Oversight Committee Chairman William Clinger, R-Pennsylvania, removed cameras and microphones from Wednesday's hearing. Watkins gave no reason for seeking the privilege under House rules.

'Smoking gun' memos

Mrs. Clinton first denied she had any role in the firings, then said Watkins and other aides misinterpreted her intentions. But memoranda written by Watkins, the former White House director of administration, indicate the first lady was far more involved.

Hillary Clinton

The May 12, 1993, memo released Wednesday provides the earliest date given so far of Mrs. Clinton's possible involvement. It reads, "he (Harry Thomason) bumped into Hillary and she's ready to fire them all that day." Thomason, a longtime Clinton friend, was the first to raise allegations of mismanagement at the travel office, the reason that was given for firing the seven staff members.

Watkins himself talked with Mrs. Clinton two days later. He wrote: "Watkins calls First Lady...Flady says she thinks these people should be out."

The memo is a handwritten chronology of events that led up to the firings on May 19, 1993. The travel office staff was headed for a short time afterward by a cousin of President Clinton's.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton again said she expressed concerns about financial mismanagement at the travel office and an independent accounting firm confirmed there were financial irregularities and "changes were made." "I did not have a hand in making decisions" such as staff dismissals, she said.

Watkins in court

The chronology includes this entry: "Wed and Thurs. -- May 12 & 13. Periodic reports from Vince Foster that First Lady had inquired about Travel Office and why wasn't action being taken. Report was that they should be fired immediately and out of here by the end of the day." Foster, the White House counsel at the time, later committed suicide.

In a previous memo, Watkins wrote "we need those people out -- we need our people in."

And in a longer draft of the same memo, Watkins said he had recommended the firings because "there would be hell to pay if ... we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the first lady's wishes."

'Outrageous conduct'

In an opening statement, Clinger said the firings were "outrageous conduct" on the part of the White House, whose action turned the lives of seven people "upside down." Only one staffer, former travel office director Billy Dale, was tried on mismanagement charges. He was acquitted. Most of the others were assigned to different jobs.

The ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman, said replacing staffers is common on Capitol Hill. He said Republicans had done the same thing on a much larger scale when they won the majority in Congress and changed committee staffs across the board, putting hundreds of people out of work.

And Waxman said that even if the committee can prove the worst of the charges, "so what?" He said the committee cannot prove, as seven other probes have not, any wrongdoing or illegal actions. (119K AIFF sound or 119K WAV sound)

Clinger said the issue is Mrs. Clinton's credibility and how it reflects on her husband's administration. (213K AIFF sound or 213K WAV sound)

Billy Dale

Some former travel office employees are not satisfied with Mrs. Clinton's public explanations. On CNN's Larry King Live Tuesday night, Bob Van Eimeren said "none of us have any real way of knowing if she is telling the truth," but he added, "I think she was very deeply involved in it." He also fervently denied there was mismanagement (204K AIFF sound or 204K WAV sound). John McSweeney echoed that sentiment, saying no financial mismanagement has been proven. (204K AIFF sound or 204K WAV sound)

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