A 'Housecleaning' That Backfired : Travel office: Did White House bungle again?

What the Clinton Administration last week tried to present as a laudable move to end years of alleged mismanagement in the White House travel office has since come to be seen as an action whose motivations are suspect.

Convincing evidence has yet to be produced to support allegations that seven longtime employees of the travel office were ousted because they kept lousy records and--so President Clinton's press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, seemed initially to suggest--because they may have been less than scrupulous when it came to handling other people's money. But enough has emerged to raise some serious questions about the Administration's own ethical behavior in this matter, and cast a penetrating light on its unmistakable political bumbling.

The employees were summarily fired after an accounting firm earlier this month looked over the travel office's books and reputedly found them "unauditable" because of missing documentation. What has since been learned is that a full three months before this examination a 25-year-old distant cousin of the President's, Catherine Cornelius, wrote a memo advocating that the travel office be restructured, with herself put in charge. Cornelius also proposed that a Little Rock, Ark., travel agency be hired to service the White House account, most of which involves arranging charter flights for correspondents who cover the President. That was done, though the action was quickly reversed when the political firestorm erupted last week.

What has also since been learned is that a close friend of the President's, Harry Thomason, was involved in an approach to the White House travel office that aimed at getting it to spread around its charter airline patronage. Rebuffed, Thomason says he complained to Clinton and to White House Administrative Director David Watkins.

The White House asked the FBI to look into possible illegal activities by the fired employees--a request that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has suggested was made inappropriately. Meanwhile, the seven find themselves not just suspended pending an investigation but out of jobs, denied the basic chance to defend themselves, and with the White House's implication of incompetence or even criminal wrongdoing hanging over their heads.

Was the travel office poorly run? Maybe, though that was alleged only well after Cornelius wrote her memo on Feb. 15. Even if that allegation is proven, it won't lift the stain of unfairness from the way longtime employees were fired, or justify the fact that cronyism seems to have played a major, maybe even a decisive part in the whole affair. This nasty business may be another self-inflicted political wound for Clinton.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World