Contributions Case: Document Request Should Have Been Relayed
Dec. 06, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A government attorney conceded on Friday that a former official improperly discarded documents related to Clinton administration trade missions abroad. A federal judge suggested it was ``mere negligence.''
The former official, Melinda Yee, who helped arrange the foreign trips, has testified that she discarded her notes two months after the judge ordered the Commerce Department to give such papers to the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch.
The group, which has advocated eliminating the Commerce Department, is seeking evidence that might indicate the administration used the trade missions to get contributions for the Democratic Party.
Yee said in a deposition Wednesday that her department colleagues failed to inform her that Judicial Watch had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents.
``The bottom line is, somebody should have spoken to her,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Hegyi at a court hearing Friday. ``In our opinion, her office ought to have been searched,'' he said.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said, ``I don't think we've seen evidence beyond mere negligence.'' But he also said, ``Documents that should have been produced have been destroyed.''
Lamberth ordered the Commerce Department to search the contents of the computers of Yee and two other former officials for relevant material.
Judicial Watch successfully sued the Commerce Department in January 1995 to force it to release the trade mission documents.
Yee's attorney, Nancy Luque, said Thursday that Yee's notes dealt mainly with logistics of the trade missions and not their substance. She said the notes probably covered a trade trip to China and possibly one to India.
``It's very, very troubling, to put it mildly, that these documents were destroyed,'' Larry Klayman, the chairman and general counsel of Judicial Watch, said at the hearing. ``These new issues raise very serious concerns about whether court orders were violated.''
Klayman also said the actions by government officials suggested a possible ``obstruction of justice.''
Hegyi acknowledged that officials should have acted differently. But he said after the hearing, ``I haven't seen anything that even comes within a grenade's throw of obstruction of justice.''
Hegyi also disclosed that the records of former department employee William Morton, who shared an office suite with Yee, were searched in response to the Judicial Watch request while hers were not. Morton, who coordinated travel by the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, died with Brown, other department employees and a group of U.S. business executives in a plane crash in Croatia last April.
Judicial Watch is seeking to discover whether Brown offered U.S. companies invitations to trade missions as a way of raising campaign contributions for Democrats.
Luque said Yee ``had absolutely no role in deciding who would go'' on the trade missions. Yee also made clear during her sworn testimony that she never engaged in fund-raising activities while at the Commerce Department, Luque said.
Yee testified she threw away the notes in question and related documents after she became a senior adviser to Brown in July 1995. Because she was leaving her job in the trade area, Yee reasoned she no longer needed the notes, Luque said.
In May 1995, Lamberth ordered the Commerce Department to turn over more than 30,000 pages of documents to Judicial Watch. The department withheld about 3,000 pages. Luque said Thursday that Yee was unaware of the judge's order at the time.
Yee joined the Commerce Department after working at the Democratic National Committee during the 1992 election. She left the department earlier this year to work for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.