First Lady Won't Face Travel Charge

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New Yorkers weighing the U.S. Senate candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton have been given a fresh reminder of scandals that have dogged the first lady and her husband.

Independent Counsel Robert Ray said Thursday that he will not charge Mrs. Clinton over the 1993 firings in the White House travel office but said there is ``substantial evidence'' she played a role — despite her denials.

Ray said he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Clinton's statements and testimony about the matter were ``knowingly false.'' He has closed the investigation into the 1993 firings of all seven employees of the travel office, which spurred one of the first major controversies of President Clinton's tenure.

The issue has not been a high-profile one in Mrs. Clinton's campaign against Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, but independent pollster Lee Miringoff said ``it's obviously unwelcome news for her.''

``It's not going to lose the election for her, but it's not a plus,'' added Jay Severin, a New York GOP political operative and commentator. ``The biggest problem is that it reinforces a major existing negative for her. It's a major reminder that she appears to be among those who look like they're above the law.''

Mrs. Clinton has denied playing any role in the firings, an assertion challenged in a memo by former White House administration director David Watkins. Ray concluded that Mrs. Clinton's discussions with presidential aides and friends ``ultimately influenced Watkins' decision to fire the travel office employees.''

``Nevertheless, the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that any of Mrs. Clinton's statements and testimony regarding her involvement in the travel office firings were knowingly false,'' he said.

The workers served at the pleasure of the president and could have been terminated without any reason.

The White House conducted an internal review and issued a public apology, saying the firings had been mishandled. It reprimanded four presidential aides while recommending that five of the former employees be given new government jobs. The former head of the office was acquitted of financial wrongdoing.

Investigators later concluded that deputy White House counsel Vince Foster was despondent over the controversy before his 1993 suicide in a Virginia park. In a diary released by the White House, Foster expressed concern that presidential aides would become entangled in investigations and worried that a role by Mrs. Clinton would be misconstrued.

The firings became a partisan issue, with Republicans accusing the White House of pressing the FBI to open a criminal investigation to justify the dismissals.

In his statement, Ray criticized the White House for what he called ``substantial resistance'' to providing evidence, including documents and e-mails.

The White House, however, accused the Independent Counsel of politicizing an investigation that has dragged on far too long.

``After seven years and the expense of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, the Independent Counsel confirms what we have said all along: There is no evidence that the first lady did anything wrong,'' White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said in a statement.

While Lazio's campaign refused to comment on Ray's statement, other New York Republicans said it would hamper the first lady's run even if the GOP doesn't flog it.

``I think it's got legs of its own,'' New York state GOP Chairman William Powers said.

Miringoff noted that Ray's actual report is sealed for at least 90 days, meaning there could be fresh news reports on it at a key time.

``When it comes out in September, the Clinton people will say it's old news, but for those suffering from a heavy bout of Clinton fatigue it's more of the same,'' said Miringoff, who heads Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion.

Severin said it might have been better for Clinton's campaign if Ray had said he would seek an indictment of the first lady.

``She always does better when she's a victim,'' said the GOP strategist, who is not involved in the campaign.

The Clinton campaign and State Democratic Party Chairwoman Judith Hope, a major booster of the first lady's Senate run, said she didn't think the Ray report would have any impact on the race.

``It's basically no news,'' she said.

``Sixty million dollars, six years later, the report confirms what Hillary has said all along, that she did nothing wrong,'' Hope said.

Veteran New York Democratic operative Hank Sheinkopf agreed.

``Saying somebody is heavily involved and calling them a crook is entirely different,'' said Sheinkopf, who is not involved in the Senate race. ``There is no hard proof that can wind up on a television commercial that says in fact she did something wrong.''