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Travelgate Memo at Odds With Statements About Mrs. Clinton’s Role

January 4, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Contradicting the previous portrayal of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role, a presidential aide’s memo says the first lady was the unseen hand triggering the White House travel office firings after she conferred with Hollywood producer Harry Thomason.

The 1993 draft memo by David Watkins surfaced Wednesday night from White House files, nearly three years after the travel office flap and eight months after the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee began demanding that the Clinton administration turn over files on the controversy.

The memo by Watkins, then White House director of administration, states that White House officials were under intense pressure from Mrs. Clinton to dismiss all seven travel office employees and replace them with a Little Rock, Ark., travel agency. Thomason co-owned an aviation consulting company that could have benefited from a new travel office operation.

``We ... knew that there would be hell to pay if ... we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the first lady’s wishes,″ Watkins’ memo says. It is marked ``Privileged And Confidential.″

After producing Watkins’ memo to the House committee, the White House released the document at the request of The Associated Press, which has repeatedly asked the White House for access to all travel office-related documents in the past several months.

Watkins begins the undated memo by saying this ``is my first attempt to be sure the record is straight, something I have not done in previous conversations with investigators.″

When talking to a White House internal review team that found the firings unfair, ``I have been as protective and vague as possible,″ Watkins said in the memo.

The memo appears to be written for Watkins’ boss at the time of the travel office controversy, then-White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty.

Then deputy-White House counsel Vincent Foster ``regularly informed me that the first lady was concerned and desired action _ the action desired was the firing of the travel office staff,″ Watkins’ memo says.

Watkins’ memo conflicts with written answers given six months later by a White House lawyer who interviewed Mrs. Clinton about her role in the travel office affair.

``Mrs. Clinton does not know the origin of the decision to remove the White House Travel Office employees,″ said April 6, 1994, responses to the General Accounting Office by then-associate White House counsel Neil Eggleston. ``Mrs. Clinton was aware that Mr. Watkins was undertaking a review of the situation in the Travel Office, but she had no role in the decision to terminate the employees.″

``Mrs. Clinton did not direct that any action be taken by anyone with regard to the Travel Office, other than expressing an interest in receiving information about the review″ of travel office operations, said Eggleston’s responses to the GAO, the congressional investigative agency that looked into the travel office case.

While never describing the events with such candor to investigators, Watkins in the past has disclosed a conversation with Mrs. Clinton, saying she urged action to get ``our people″ into the travel office. The office makes travel arrangements for White House journalists accompanying the president on trips.

White House spokesman Mark Fabiani said Wednesday night that Watkins’ draft memo ``doesn’t add many new facts to the already-extensive public record″ on the travel office affair. Watkins issued a statement calling the memo ``a rough draft written in the early fall of 1993″ that ``was never used.″

Watkins’ memo says that ``the first lady took interest in having the travel office situation resolved quickly, following Harry Thomason’s bringing it to her attention.″

Thomason and a business partner, Darnell Martens, owned an aviation consulting company, which Thomason touted in a personal meeting with President Clinton.

``Thomason briefed the first lady on his suspicion that the travel office was improperly funneling business to a single charter company, and told her that the functions of that office could be easily replaced and reallocated,″ said Watkins’ memo.

In a conversation with Mrs. Clinton, Watkins said she ``mentioned that Thomason had explained how the travel office could be run after removing the current staff _ that plan included bringing in World Wide Travel″ of Little Rock ``to handle the basic travel functions.″

A federal jury recently acquitted the travel office’s former director, Billy Dale, of charges that he embezzled and converted travel office funds to his own use.

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