Clinton Administration officials, fielding a complaint from Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, acknowledged Monday that the White House violated its own rules governing contacts with the Justice Department when it asked the FBI to look into alleged mismanagement at the White House travel office.
The rules are intended to prevent misuse of the agency for political purposes, and Reno considered the breach serious enough that she called White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum Monday morning to "express concern," officials said.
The contact occurred May 13, when associate White House counsel William Kennedy--a former partner with Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, Ark.--called an FBI unit supervisor, James Bourke, to ask the FBI to look into the seven-employee travel operation.
Last Wednesday, six days later, the White House announced it was firing the career members of the travel office after finding "gross mismanagement." The ex-travel staffers strongly deny any wrongdoing.
Under the Administration's own rules, contacts between the White House and Justice Department employees are to take place only between the White House counsel's office and one of the top three Justice officials. The FBI is an arm of Justice.
The purpose of the rule is to prevent White House aides from trying to influence the department and the FBI in any investigations or prosecutions.
"Technically, a call should be placed through the Justice Department," said Carl Stern, chief spokesman for the Justice Department. "Everybody here wishes that he had done it by the book."
The rules also appear to have applied to a meeting that occurred Friday at the White House between communications aides and John Collingwood, who heads the FBI's office of congressional and public affairs. The session was held to discuss the White House's plans to announce that the FBI had found sufficient cause to conduct a criminal investigation into possible financial irregularities at the travel office.
At the time, the White House was under intense questioning about whether the FBI had been called into the case to give political cover for the dismissals. The criticisms were renewed again Monday as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for official investigations.
The controversy over the dismissal of the White House travel staff was complicated last week by disclosure that a distant cousin of the President, Cathy Cornelius, had recommended earlier this year that she head a reorganized travel office.
In addition, a memo from the President's longtime friend, Harry Thomason, and his partner indicated they sought the White House travel business for their firm. Thomason, however, has said he had no such interest, but did want to complain to the White House about the travel office shutting out opportunities for charter airlines to compete for the business of hauling the White House press corps.
Kennedy made his request to Bourke shortly after Thomason complained. Bourke heads the FBI's background investigations section, and speaks routinely to Kennedy several times a day, Stern said. "It didn't seem necessary to him to check someone else. . . . In that respect, it was an understandable oversight, an understandable lapse," he said.
Nonetheless, he said, Reno called Nussbaum Monday morning "and expressed concern that normal processes were not followed." Nussbaum assured her "they had every intention of following proper procedures," Stern said.
According to the FBI, Kennedy described the travel operation's flaws with "little hard information." He said, in effect, "We think something is wrong."
"The feeling at that point was the White House didn't have sufficient information to articulate whether there should be an investigation by the FBI," said Charles Mandigo, who is acting deputy to Collingwood. But FBI officials decided an investigation was warranted after the White House asked a team of auditors from the KPMG Peat, Marwick accounting firm to spend several days at the travel office.
Dole said Monday that there are "more questions than answers raised by this whole tawdry affair," and said he will ask Reno and FBI Director William S. Sessions for "a full explanation of last week's events." Specter, who has taken an active interest in the Justice Department's independence, said he planned to ask Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to investigate. Biden declined comment.
The FBI's involvement has also brought questions of whether Sessions, under attack for alleged ethical abuses, had urged subordinates to accede to the White House request in order to strengthen his arguments that he should keep his job. But Collingwood said in an interview that Sessions was unaware of the statement Friday.
Testifying last Tuesday before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be deputy attorney general, Philip B. Heymann was asked by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) about what safeguards there were governing White House contact with the Justice Department on cases.
Heymann, who headed the department's criminal division during the Jimmy Carter Administration, said the Clinton White House was establishing a system under which only the office of counsel to the President should communicate with the Justice Department on a specific case.