WASHINGTON -- The White House abruptly dismissed it seven-person travel staff yesterday and asked the FBI to examine its books. Administration officials, who said the low-level appointees had failed to account for thousands of dollars, questioned some of their contracts with air charter companies.
None of the staff members were appointees of the Clinton administration, and all had worked in the White House for at least a decade. Three of those who were dismissed said last night that they were not informed of the FBI's involvement, and denied any wrongdoing.
Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, said that an outside review of the office by an accounting firm had turned up evidence of "gross mismanagement" and "very shoddy accounting practices."
She said the White House was not accusing any of the travel staff members of criminal wrongdoing. But she declined to explain why it had brought in the FBI, a criminal investigation organization, to examine the operations of the office, which does most of its work on behalf of news organizations but also books commercial flights and hotel accommodations for White House officials.
The White House said it had hired a distant cousin of President Clinton, Catherine Cornelius, 25, who handled Mr. Clinton's campaign press charters, to make travel arrangements on an interim basis under the supervision of the Office of Management and Budget.
A partner of the accounting firm that conducted the review, Peat Marwick, said there was evidence of possible illegalities.
"The nature of the transactions raises questions," the partner said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "When you see lack of documentation of cash, unaccounting of petty cash -- those are not the things you want to see in any accounting environment."
White House officials said they asked the FBI to investigate whether officials in the travel office had demanded kickbacks from plane charter companies, although they said they had no direct evidence of any such payments. In addition, the review found eight questionable petty cash disbursements over the last 16 months that amounted to $20,000 and were not entered into office ledgers. In that period, there were 17 petty cash disbursements that were entered into the ledgers that totaled $70,000 to $80,000.
The review also turned up one check to petty cash that was recorded on an office ledger as being for $2,000. But the review found that the check was really made out for $5,000. The Peat Marwick official said that he told the travel office person involved about the discrepancy, and was told that he had inadvertently left another $2,800 in cash in an envelope in his office drawer.
Barney Brasseaux, a member of the travel office staff, said last evening that he was shocked at Ms. Myers' statements about the FBI.
"That was never mentioned to us," he said.
"We know that we served at the pleasure of the president -- we understand that, that's not a problem," he continued. "But we're a little concerned that they've put a cloud of suspicion over everyone in the office without giving anyone any opportunity to respond."
Mr. Brasseaux said that whether the operation was efficient was something over which auditors could reasonably differ. "We take our instructions from the administration," he said, and each administration generally wants the office run a particular way. But he added that "up to this point we had gotten no direction at all from anybody" in the Clinton administration, although "the director had made several attempts to contact somebody to get that."
The dismissals took effect immediately. The seven were not given an opportunity to defend their activities because "given the evidence of mismanagement," Ms. Myers said, "dismissing them was the best course of action."
Officials who worked under Republican administrations contended that the dismissals were politically motivated. "The travel office has been a nonpolitical office staffed by a dedicated team of professionals who served Republican and Democratic administrations with distinction," John Herrick, a former aide to President George Bush, told Reuters. "The Clinton administration now seems compelled to turn a nonpolitical office into a political operation."