By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The January 29, 1993 memo from Thomason's partner, Darnell Martens, suggested that they both "needed some form of official status as advisers to the White House for general aviation matters," and that they should "determine who controls the scheduling of the White House Press Corps aircraft. This can be done by TRM much as the campaign aircraft were handled" by TRM.
Thomason and Martens soon had special White House passes, and Thomason was given an office in the White House. Thomason clearly had his sights on more than just Travel Office business: A month later TRM pitched the president a review of nonmilitary aircraft. Bill Clinton wrote to his aides: "These guys are sharp."
The Martens memo and other documents obtained by the House investigators show that Thomason was soon peddling stories that Travel Office employees were "demanding kickbacks" (allegations that were later disproved) and should be fired. Thomason's co-conspirator in the plot to take over the office was Catherine Cornelius, a 25-year-old Clinton cousin who coveted the top job held by Billy Dale. Thomason and Cornelius concocted trumped-up charges of embezzlement and fiscal malfeasance by the Travel Office staff, and soon had the ear of the First Lady as well as the president.
Hillary denied under oath to the General Accounting Office on April 6, 1994 that she had any role in the decision to terminate the Travelgate Seven. Contrast these assertions with the now-famous memo written a year earlier to then-Chief of Staff Mack McLarty by David Watkins, who was White House director of administration: "The First lady took interest in having the Travel Office situation resolved quickly, following Harry Thomason's bringing it to her attention. Thomason briefed the First Lady.... Once this made it onto the First Lady's agenda, Vince Foster became involved, and he and Harry Thomason regularly informed me of her attention to the Travel Office situation--as well as her insistence that the situation be resolved immediately by replacing the Travel Office staff. Foster regularly informed me that the First Lady was concerned and desired action--the action desired was the firing of the Travel Office staff. On Friday, while I was in Memphis, Foster told me that it was important that I speak directly with the First Lady that day. I called her that evening and she conveyed to me in clear terms... her desire for swift and clear action to resolve the situation."
Three days later, Watkins continued, "you [McLarty] came to my office... and explained that this was on the First Lady's radar screen... We both knew there would be hell to pay if we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the First Lady's wishes. You then approved the decision to terminate the Travel Office staff."
Watkins was hardly likely to have misunderstood Hillary. A Hope, Arkansas native, and former top political adviser to Governor Clinton who served as the chief financial officer of the 1992 presidential campaign, Watkins was not only an old friend of Bill and Hillary's, but also the First Lady's former business partner. In 1983, Watkins steered Hillary into a cellular telephone franchise, and her $3,000 investment netted her $48,000 five years later when the stock was eventually sold. Nor is Watkins likely to have prevaricated in a self-described "soul-cleansing" memo marked "privileged and confidential" and addressed to his old friend and fellow Hope native McLarty.
Furthermore, Watkins's memoed version of events is buttressed by contemporaneous accounts from two other White House aides, Lorraine Voles and Todd Stern, who both helped write the internal White House review of the Travelgate affair after it blew up in public. Stern's notes said that "if you give answers that aren't fully honest (e.g., no re: HRC) you risk hugely compounding the problem by getting caught in half-truths. You run the risk of turning this into a cover-up." More documents extracted from the White House by House investigators show that Harry Thomason also told White House aides that Hillary would "be very upset" if the Travel Office workers weren't fired.
The Travelgate Seven were fired with the phony embezzlement charges hanging over their heads, even though none had ever been interviewed by any White House official. After five excruciating months--during which they, their families, friends, and neighbors were besieged by FBI agents, and the Seven subjected to IRS scrutiny--six of them were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Justice Department. The White House admitted that their firings had been a mistake and apologized, and five were given other government jobs. (A sixth chose to retire.)
The seventh, Travel Office Director Billy Dale, who began working in the office during the Kennedy administration, was indicted on embezzlement charges after political pressure from the Justice Department (then effectively being run by former Rose law firm partner Webster Hubbell). But Travel Office spending logs that Dale said would prove his innocence were, the FBI determined, strangely missing.
Patsy Thomasson, another longtime Clinton intimate from Arkansas, then head of White House administration, ordered removal of hard drives from computers in the Travel Office three days before the firings of the Seven and just two days before an audit of the office began. Documents obtained by House probers also show that, in the course of the White House internal review of the Travelgate disaster, two officials from World Wide Travel--the Little Rock firm that had worked on the Clinton campaign and was brought in to help run the Travel Office after the firings--complained to White House staff secretary John Podesta that many Travel Office documents were being disposed of improperly. When one of them, Fan Dozier, confronted Cornelius about the destruction and removal of documents and records, Cornelius told her that they were "just trash." Lee Johnson, deputy director of the White House office in charge of preserving presidential documents, also complained to Podesta about records taken by Cornelius.