A House committee chairman charged Wednesday that the White House improperly used the FBI for political purposes when it obtained confidential files on a White House travel official seven months after he was fired.
Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.) said in a news briefing that the White House obtained FBI background reports on Billy R. Dale, the former travel office director, under false pretenses after a written request was sent in the name of then-White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum in December 1993.
Nussbaum, who since has returned to private law practice in New York, said that he never saw such files, adding in a statement: “I have absolutely no knowledge of any request being made by anyone in the White House to the FBI for any report concerning Billy Dale.”
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh disputed the notion that the use of the files by the White House was improper, although he said that the bureau would conduct a thorough inquiry and furnish the results to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who is looking into the travel office case.
To support his allegations, Clinger exhibited a document showing that Nussbaum’s office asked FBI officials for files on Dale, citing as the reason the need to screen him for “access” to the White House. Clinger and Dale’s attorney, Steve Tabackman, said that Dale had not tried to gain such access.
The White House request, made on a standard form, bore Nussbaum’s typewritten name without a signature. A notation showed that the FBI had furnished the materials.
Late Wednesday, special counsel Jane Sherburne said that the White House may have mistakenly sought Dale’s records to fill out background information folders that were incomplete. She also said that the White House has been contacted by Starr’s office about the latest travel office allegations and would provide any information requested.
Tabackman, referring to Dale’s acquittal last year of criminal charges growing out of his handling of travel office funds, sharply reproached Nussbaum.
“This new disclosure that the White House counsel was prying into confidential FBI background reports of Mr. Dale while he was under investigation by the Department of Justice is further evidence of the politics that underlie the gross injustice that was inflicted on Mr. Dale and his colleagues,” Tabackman said in a written statement.
House Republicans searching for evidence of abuse of power by the Clinton White House viewed the latest travel office document as a promising find. But Freeh sought to minimize the episode.
Saying that he had no previous knowledge of the matter, Freeh stated: “I have been advised that the FBI files were released to the White House as part of a routine procedure and consisted of background investigations of Mr. Dale conducted by the FBI in connection with his White House employment covering the period 1961 to 1991.
“All of the materials released to the White House predated the criminal investigation of Mr. Dale’s conduct in connection with the White House travel office.”
Freeh added that “these records were released in response to a type of request routinely received” from executive branch agencies.
Dale and six other office staff members were fired on May 19, 1993, allegedly for mismanagement of the office, which handles travel arrangements for reporters covering the president. President Clinton later acknowledged that the dismissals were a mistake and offered the workers new jobs.
A subsequent investigation by Clinger’s House Government Reform and Oversight Committee revealed that friends of Clinton, including Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, had been lobbying the president for a share of the travel business. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also had been urging a travel office shake-up, principally on behalf of Thomason, according to White House documents obtained by the committee.
Earlier this year Starr began investigating whether former presidential aide David Watkins had committed perjury in his testimony to Congress in an effort to protect Mrs. Clinton from scrutiny in the case.
Clinger said that the request to the FBI was among 1,000 new pages of subpoenaed documents given to his panel by the White House last week.
Meanwhile, in a related development, Senate Republicans delayed a vote on whether to grant limited immunity to David Hale, a chief accuser of the president in the Whitewater controversy, after Democrats insisted that immunity could allow Hale to escape state prosecution in Arkansas in a separate fraud case.
Adopting another course, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), chairman of the special panel investigating Whitewater, won unanimous agreement to seek a federal court ruling next week on whether Hale can refuse to testify to the committee on grounds of self-incrimination.
Hale, a former Little Rock, Ark., municipal judge who owned a management firm financed by the Small Business Administration, has accused Clinton of pressuring him in 1986 to grant an improper loan to Susan McDougal, a co-investor with the Clintons in their Whitewater land venture. About $50,000 of the loan was used to shore up the Whitewater Development Corp., authorities have found.
Hale testified for nine days in the recently completed fraud and conspiracy trial in Little Rock that resulted in the conviction of Mrs. McDougal, her former husband, James B. McDougal, and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and other committee Democrats said that they would welcome Senate testimony by Hale but contended that he is trying to “bamboozle” the panel by first insisting on immunity from prosecution.
“He doesn’t need immunity for anything we want to ask him about. He already testified about that for nine days,” Sarbanes said.
Hale’s attorney has told the committee that he will not let Hale testify without immunity, a grant conferred by the Senate more than 300 times in the past, D’Amato told his colleagues.
Realizing that he lacked enough votes to grant immunity to Hale without the support of Democrats, D’Amato won approval for Hale to be subpoenaed for closed-door testimony Friday. If, as expected, he invokes the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, the committee will ask a federal judge to decide whether the claim is proper.
Based on such a ruling, D’Amato said, the panel would vote again next week on whether to grant immunity to Hale.
In another development, congressional sources said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is urging Republicans to investigate reports that Commerce Department employees may have shredded incriminating documents after their boss, Secretary Ronald H. Brown, was killed in a plane crash in Croatia on April 3.
Citing allegations in the conservative journal American Spectator, Gingrich has told Republicans in closed-door meetings that news of the crash may have been delayed to allow documents to be destroyed. Allegations of financial irregularities by Brown were being investigated by an independent counsel at the time of his death.
The White House called the charges “disgusting.” A Commerce Department spokesperson said that employees were “in such a state of shock” to learn of Brown’s death that no one thought of paperwork.