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Harassment Claim Ends Nominee’s Cabinet Bid

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A longtime Arkansas friend of President Clinton withdrew his name from consideration as secretary of Veterans Affairs on Friday when it became clear that Senate hearings would look into a charge that he had made unwanted sexual advances while serving as the agency’s deputy secretary.

Questions also were raised about a department inquiry into the matter.

Hershel W. Gober, 60, a Vietnam War veteran, will remain as deputy secretary, according to a letter he wrote to the president.

Congressional sources said two women claimed “unwanted sexual contact” by Gober at a reception in 1993. An administrative complaint about the incident was filed in the department, investigated twice and found unwarranted, according to James Holley, spokesman for the agency.

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Senators considering Gober’s nomination were concerned about the handling of the first investigation, an informal review conducted by the agency’s then-general counsel, Mary Lou Keener, whom Gober married in 1996.

Questions about the review, in light of Keener and Gober’s subsequent marriage, are “far more serious” than the charge itself, according to a Senate aide.

“That whole process created problems,” the aide said.

White House officials said that in view of such concerns, Gober’s nomination no longer is viable.

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“It was clear . . . that the process was going to become something of a public spectacle,” said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was equally clear that the committee was not going to vote to confirm him. Under those circumstances, [Gober] thought it would no longer be productive to keep the nomination up there.”

Gober’s announcement followed a decision by senators Thursday in closed session to conduct public hearings on the nomination next week.

Holley said Gober was accused of making inappropriate sexual advances during one of many festivities in the Washington area celebrating the 1993 dedication of the women’s memorial at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.

Details of the complaint were not released.

Because Gober was attending the function in his official capacity, the complaint was filed with the department. Gober “vehemently denied” the charge, Holley said.

After the veterans agency’s investigation found the administrative claim unwarranted, the claim was not pursued in court, Holley said.

A White House official said: “We were aware of the alleged incident, and we were aware that he had been exonerated.”

The circumstances leading to Gober’s decision to withdraw call to mind past White House problems with checking out nominations.

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Gober has been a Clinton confidant for many years. During Clinton’s tenure as governor of Arkansas, he served as director of the state’s Veterans Affairs Office. He helped Clinton defuse questions about his draft record during the 1992 presidential campaign, appearing on his behalf before military and veterans groups.

“This is a guy that matters to [Clinton],” said a White house official who requested anonymity. Losing a nominee is always hard, but “it’s different when you go back 20 years with a person,” the aide said.

Congressional sources said the handling of Gober’s nomination by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee was proceeding in a routine fashion when the unwanted sexual contact allegation surfaced during FBI background checks. “The committee obviously had to deal with this,” said one Republican Senate source.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee chairman, postponed the hearings, which had been scheduled for September, and sent committee investigators to explore the charge further.

The investigators briefed the 12 senators on the panel Thursday, and the White House was informed that a hearing would be scheduled for Wednesday, when the charge and the fact that Kenner oversaw one of the investigations into it would be explored.

Specter said the hearing might have been “contentious,” but he praised Gober’s record. “Mr. Gober has an outstanding record as a decorated combat soldier and Marine and did a good job as head of Veteran Affairs in Arkansas and as deputy secretary for more than four years,” Specter said. “He is entitled to the presumption of propriety and innocence like everyone else and, as far as I am concerned, his withdrawal closes the issue on his nomination to be secretary.”

Gober served two tours in Vietnam and received numerous decorations, including the Purple Heart. He served in both the Marine Corps and the Army.

The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times earlier this year reported that Gober and Keener, his wife, traveled at taxpayer expense to conferences and out-of-town meetings, including to Paris, before and after their wedding.

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But a spokesman for the veterans agency was quoted as saying: “All [the trips] were official business, all completely legitimate. And you would expect to find some top VA officials at the same veterans events.”

Keener recently left the department.


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