Clinton Ousts White House Travel Office

THE White House abruptly fired its entire travel office of seven people Wednesday, saying a lot of money cannot be properly accounted for. The employees had 10 years to 31 years of service and had to leave on the same day. They were accused of shoddy accounting practices and possible overbilling.

White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said the FBI probably would be asked to investigate. She said there were signs of "a serious overbilling of the press," a charge later disputed by a senior White House official.

The travel office books flights and accommodations for White House employees traveling commercially. It also charters jets for the press corps that accompanies the president on every trip. Over a 17-month period examined by auditors, the office handled about $11 million in press travel payments.

A distant cousin to President Clinton, 25-year-old Catherine Cornelius, was named to help oversee the travel operations. And a Little Rock, Ark., travel agency with which she was associated was picked without competitive bidding to handle arrangements.

Mr. Clinton deflected questions about the firings, saying merely he was told that an investigation had turned up "serious problems" and that "there was no alternative."

Billy Dale, who was fired as head of the office, said he had been told they were being let go because they were reorganizing. His staff learned of the mismanagement charges only through news accounts.

The accounting firm of Peat Marwick, which reviewed the travel offices' books from January 1992 to May 1993, said that "the records are unauditable in their present form." Lobbyists on the line

President Clinton has labeled lobbyists "defenders of decline" and "guardians of gridlock," and the public seems to agree. In keeping with this view of lobbyists, the House next week is scheduled to vote on a massive deficit-reduction package that gains part of its revenue by killing the tax deduction businesses and trade groups now can claim for their lobbying expenses. The provision is estimated to raise $873 million over the next five years. Because lobbyists are a popular target these days, the provi sion seems likely to sail through the House and Senate and into the law books. Even lobbyists are reluctant to rise to their own defense.

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