Magazine article Insight on the News

Watergate, Travelgate: Mea Culpas Don't Cut It

Magazine article Insight on the News

Watergate, Travelgate: Mea Culpas Don't Cut It

Article excerpt

Shortly after Bill Clinton was sworn as the 41st president, he guaranteed Americans the highest ethical standards of any administration in modern history. Has he lived up to his promise?

Rep. William Clinger, a retiring nine-term Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, released a series of depositions on Aug. 5 secured during his panel's three-year probe of the White House Travel Office scandal dubbed "Travelgate." Most Americans are unaware of the scope of the congressman's investigation and its initial conclusions. But for those old enough to remember Watergate, Clinger's comments are eerily reminiscent of the words spoken by former Sen. Sam Ervin, often with a tinge of sadness and foreboding, when he was chairman of another 'gate probe nearly a quarter of a century ago. At the start of televised Watergate hearings on May 17, 1973, the legendary North Carolina Democrat stated that the purpose was to "probe assertions that the very system has been subverted."

Following are excerpts from Clinger's statement on what many experts in Washington believe is a building constitutional crisis capable of preventing Bill Clinton from serving out a second term if he is reelected.

Obstruction of justice: "From the start, the White House Travel Office matter has reflected a disturbing pattern of resistance by the Clinton White House to any type of public accountability or congressional oversight into questionable activities. The Clinton administration's approach to congressional oversight can best be described as one of 'containment,' in which the seekers of facts are forced to pry the truth out, one brick at a time, from a wall of obstructionism.

"For more than three years, I have attempted to get to the bottom of this matter and to this day I continue to face a White House intent on withholding key documents and obscuring the truth. By subpoenaing documents from both the White House and the individuals involved, and piecing together the documentary record, it is clear that the White House's initial 'mea culpa' regarding the Travel Office was a whitewash -- a 'limited modified hangout' that was misleading at best."

The David Watkins memo: "One document -- the Watkins 'cleansing' memo -- was discovered after two years of investigations among documents belonging to Patsy Thomasson who long before had signed an internal White House document claiming she had searched all her files for Travel Office documents. The 'soul-cleansing' memo went a long way in explaining the real Travelgate story and should have been turned over years earlier to numerous congressional and criminal investigations.

"Clearly, neither Mr. Watkins nor others at the White House ever wanted this version of events to see the light of day Mr. Watkins explained in the memo he had been 'vague and protective' when talking with investigators....

"The memo provides a candid, unvarnished, and contemporaneous account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and pressures that led to the Travel Office firings. The damage-control team at the White House tried to distance Watkins, a former close ally, from the actions of others at the White House but this cannot be supported by the documentary record.

The first lady and Mack McLarty: "In his deposition, Mack McLarty said he never saw Mr. Watkins' memo but acknowledged a never-before disclosed conversation with the first lady on May 16, 1993 -- three days before the firings. Mr. McLarty previously told [the Government Accounting Office] that he only had one meeting with the first lady about the Travel Office.

"Now, three years later and after the committee obtained documents indicating a May 16 contact between the first lady and Mr. McLarty, Mr. McLarty acknowledges he had an additional conversation with the first lady about the Travel Office. On the chronology of Travel Office events which the White House initially represented was subject to executive privilege, Mr. …

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