White House Agrees to Let Lawmakers View Contested Documents
Jun. 26, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The White House held off a contempt-of-Congress vote Tuesday by agreeing to let some House lawmakers view 2,000 pages of documents concerning the travel office firings.
``We averted a constitutional crisis,'' White House counsel Jack Quinn said after he and Rep. William Clinger, R-Pa., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, emerged from a 20-minute meeting on Capitol Hill.
It was the second time in a month that White House aides averted a criminal contempt vote by the House in their dispute with the GOP-led committee over documents. The vote had been scheduled for Thursday.
President Clinton had claimed executive privilege and refused to turn over the travel office documents. House Republicans contested that defense.
To end the impasse, the White House agreed to let a handful of committee members, both Republicans and Democrats, and their aides view the material. Clinger, the committee chairman, and Rep. Cardiss Collins of Illinois, its senior Democrat, will decide who will view the documents.
Quinn, who was named in the contempt citation, said the White House agreed to make the documents available ``to make the American people understand that there's nothing being hidden here.''
In a related development, the Washington Post reported that an FBI agent assigned to the White House in the spring of 1993 repeatedly was quizzed by White House officials for confidential FBI background information on travel office employees.
The agent, Dennis Sculimbrene, told the Senate investigators that three political appointees at the White House seemed to be looking ``for a reason or an excuse to fire (the travel office) people,'' according to Wednesday's Post. He said he complained to his own superiors that the FBI was being ``used'' improperly.
According to the report, Sculimbrene said he was asked for information by Kennedy; Jeff Eller, deputy White House communications director; and Patsy Thomasson, deputy director of presidential personnel.
The White House said it planned to bring the first documents to the committee's office on Thursday. Under the agreement, the lawmakers and aides will not be able to make copies or to take word-for-word notes. They can take only general descriptive notes.
An exception would be made if any of the documents are related to the gathering of FBI background files on former White House employees, in which case they would be ``handed over immediately'' to the lawmakers, Clinger said. In a letter to Clinger Tuesday, Quinn said the papers will not shed light on the FBI matter.
Attorney Robert Bennett said Tuesday he suspected the committee or its staff of leaking FBI documents related to two White House figures.
Bennett represents Hollywood producer and Clinton friend Harry Thomason, who is being sued by fired travel office director Billy Dale and businessman Charles Caudle. In a letter to Clinger, Bennett said he had learned that Caudle had in his possession confidential FBI reports of Patsy Thomasson and David Watkins. Watkins, who was an administrator at the White House, also is named in the contempt citation. Thomasson is Watkins' deputy.
Clinger refuted Bennett's suggestion. ``I want to categorically deny that we have in any way'' leaked FBI documents, he later told a news conference. Rather, Clinger said, his committee released FBI interview reports on Thomasson and Watkins _ along with thousands of pages of other documents _ to the general public.
``We didn't leak anything. We spread it on the record for the world to see,'' he said.
Another exception would occur under Tuesday's agreement if the lawmakers believed any of the documents indicated possible wrongdoing. In that case, they could negotiate with White House aides to obtain them.
``If at any point I feel that the White House is not acting in good faith, I can rekindle the contempt-of-Congress proceeding,'' Clinger said. He said he believed it was the ``storm of publicity'' over the White House's improper gathering of FBI files that made the administration change course and agree to show the travel office documents.
Asked whether White House officials were abandoning the earlier claim of executive privilege, Quinn said they were not. ``We have found a way today to accommodate both the Congress' need'' for the information and to ``continue to protect the president's interest in the confidentiality of these documents,'' he said.
He called the agreement ``the middle ground.''
An 11-page list of the documents, which the White House provided earlier to the committee, refers four times to the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and contains 34 references to the late Vincent Foster, primarily in connection with the handling of papers from Foster's White House office after his suicide.
House Republicans have fought for months to get White House documents they say are crucial in determining whether Mrs. Clinton and Thomason were responsible for the firings of White House travel office workers in early 1993. Five of the seven workers were later given other government jobs, one retired and one was acquitted of criminal charges.
Most of the material that Clinton cloaked in executive privilege was created inside the White House counsel's office to prepare for congressional hearings last year.
In addition to Quinn and Watkins, the contempt-of-Congress resolution, passed by Clinger's subcommittee last month, also names former White House aide Matthew Moore. Contempt of Congress carries a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.