WASHINGTON -- Bombarded by charges from Republicans that the White House dismissed its travel staff to reward friends and relatives, the Clinton administration disclosed yesterday that the action came after a close friend of President Clinton's sought White House business opportunities for colleagues in the travel business.
Administration officials also acknowledged that the travel agency that is temporarily taking over the White House travel accounts once had business, financial and political ties to Mr. Clinton and his associates. Last year, the agency helped pay off old Clinton campaign debts.
And the officials backtracked from an assertion they leveled Wednesday against the seven members of the travel staff, whom they had accused of overcharging reporters for travel on White House charters. The staff arranges travel for news organizations covering the president and for White House staff members; none of the transactions under question involved public money.
The dismissals set off angry denunciations from Republicans, who accused Mr. Clinton of cronyism, and left White House officials stunned that an action they characterized Wednesday as part of a routine government-wide performance review would dominate the news yesterday.
Reacting sharply to the outcry, George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, said he had no regrets about how the dismissals were handled.
"For years, people turned a blind eye to financial mismanagement," he said. "We followed up on questions, authorized a proper review by an independent auditor, which raised questions of serious mismanagement. And we took the appropriate action. For the first time in years, the White House travel office will act under a competitive bid process."
Mr. Stephanopoulos acknowledged that Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer who is a close friend of Mr. Clinton's and who owns an airplane charter company, helped spur the White House inquiry several weeks ago by complaining to David Watkins, the White House management chief who handled the dismissals.
Mr. Thomason told Mr. Watkins that his friends in the charter industry were unhappy that the lack of a bidding process was shutting them out, Mr. Stephanopoulos said.
He also said it was Mr. Watkins' decision to dismiss the travel office, although the decision was made with the approval and authority of his supervisor, Thomas F. McLarty, the chief of staff, and of the president. Mr. Stephanopoulos said Mr. Clinton "didn't know the details" of the problems the White House said existed in the travel office.
Mr. Watkins had ties to the owner of World Wide Travel, a Little Rock, Ark., agency that will handle White House travel arrangements until a more permanent staff is put in place. He was a longtime client of World Wide and in the mid-1970s worked in the same Arkansas bank as the agency's owner, Betta Carney, White House officials said.
In addition, Ms. Carney and her family, and World Wide Travel, were major political backers for Mr. Clinton. Last year, when the former Arkansas governor needed to raise $100,000 to pay off state campaign debts for which he was personally liable, World Wide Travel itself and three Carney family members each contributed $1,000, the maximum permitted, to help retire the nTC debt.
The accusations against Mr. Clinton have been intensified by the fact that Catherine Cornelius, 25, a cousin of his, will handle the daily operations of the travel office. Ms. Cornelius worked closely with World Wide when she handled travel for Mr. Clinton's campaign last year.
Mr. Stephanopoulos angrily rejected the notion that there was anything improper in the actions of Mr. Thomason or Mr. Watkins.
"David Watkins had no financial interest in World Wide Travel at all," he said. "Thomason has no financial interest in any company bidding on any White House work either." World Wide was
selected, he said, because it had a track record from last year's campaign and was the largest travel agency in Little Rock.
Possibly concerned that Dee Dee Myers, the press secretary, had overstated the accusations Wednesday, Mr. Stephanopoulos retreated from her statement that there had been an overbilling of the press. "There is no final judgment on that yet," Mr. Stephanopoulos said yesterday.
White House officials said the travel office had appeared to follow lax procedures, with many records nonexistent.