White House officials asserted that the seven-member travel office was guilty of shoddy bookkeeping and gross financial mismanagement. The fired employees responded that they had been moved out so the Clintonites could consolidate control with one of their own.
What no one disputes is that the young woman brought in to head the office is a distant relative of President Clinton.
Last week's events underscored a little-examined aspect of the new occupant of the White House: his tendency to give jobs to people who are related to him, to his top staffers or to other well-connected Democrats.
In an administration built on personal ties, this may be the ultimate connection. An extended form of nepotism is present in at least 20 appointments in President Clinton's new government.
"From the people who said they were going to 'reinvent government,' we instead get a reinvention of the family dole," said Roger Stone, a Republican political activist. "It's pretty elitist. They said, 'We're going to open up government.' Yeah, to their relatives."
The most famous example is the president's selection of the first lady as the unpaid chairwoman of a White House task force designing a national health care system. But there are plenty of others.
Andrew Cuomo, son of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, who delivered the nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention, is an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ruth Harkin, the wife of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, was named to head the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Unlike Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Harkin did run against Mr. Clinton for president, but he got out of the race early and swiftly rallied behind Mr. Clinton.
An irate Stephanopoulos
George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, reacted heatedly Friday to a query about the proliferation of relatives in the administration's ranks.
"How can you make that case?" he responded. "This is not unheard of in other administrations."
He added, "I think when you look at our appointments, when you look at the breadth and the diversity of the president's Cabinet appointments . . . when you look at the thousands of people he's gone through, when you look at the extensive personnel system that we've set up to make sure that we get people of the highest quality, highest standards of excellence from across the country, you find that we have far greater diversity and a far greater commitment to excellence and merit than we've seen in the past."
In its search for excellence, however, the White House has tapped a few sons and daughters of prominent Democrats. It has chosen wives and husbands, too. And cousins, brothers-in-law. Even granddaughters.
Mr. Stephanopoulos is correct, however, in contending that the Clinton administration did not introduce nepotism to the White House.
President John F. Kennedy chose his brother Robert as attorney general, even though Robert Kennedy had had no courtroom experience.
Bill Moyers, press secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, brought his brother, Jim, into the White House press office. And George Christian, who also served as a press secretary under Johnson, helped secure a part-time job for his wife in the U.S. Information Agency when he moved up from Austin.
During the Carter administration, Hugh Carter, the president's first cousin, served in the White House as head of the Office of Administration.
Mr. Reagan also appointed Lynne Cheney, the wife of Dick Cheney, then a Republican member of Congress, to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In the Bush administration, this power couple was linked even more closely: Mr. Cheney became defense secretary.
Although precise records on family favoritism are hard to come by, there is a firm perception by both Republicans and Democrats that although Mr. Clinton may not have invented this practice, he has taken it to a higher art form.
"I think it's the trend," said Ellis Woodward, who headed the White House advance office in President Jimmy Carter's White House.
Reagan personnel office
John Buckley, a Republican who is a nephew of the conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., declined to criticize the Clinton administration but said that the Reagan personnel office was more resistant to appointing relatives of influential Republicans -- especially after it was revealed that Maureen Reagan, the president's daughter, had received a contract from the Republican National Committee.
"I'm not going to make the ludicrous assertion that my name has been a hindrance to my career," he said, "but I never worked in the Reagan administration, and I was a Reaganaut."
Call them superbly qualified and diverse appointments, as Mr. Stephanopoulos does, or call them "Neps," as one Republican National Committee source does, there are a lot of well-connected appointees in this administration.
After Mr. Clinton chose former Gov. Bruce E. Babbitt of Arizona as his secretary of interior, a job offer was made to Mr. Babbitt's wife, Hattie, a lawyer who was named the U.S. representative to the Organization of American States.
Jim O'Hara, the husband of Marla Romash, Vice President Al Gore's longtime spokeswoman, has been tabbed as head of media affairs at the Food and Drug Administration.
Michael Waldman, who works in the White House communications office, is married to Elizabeth Fine, who works in the White House counsel's office. Both worked on the campaign, and both were hired early on in the White House.
More than two members of a family can be picked, too.
As a special ambassador with responsibility for Russian affairs, Mr. Clinton chose a college chum, Strobe Talbott. Mr. Talbott's wife, Brooke Shearer, a friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton, was placed by the Clintons as director of the White House Fellows. Her brother, Derek Shearer, another longtime friend of Mr. Clinton's, was named deputy undersecretary at the Commerce Department, although he quit two weeks ago.
The diplomatic corps
The Clinton administration has sent relatives of Democrats overseas, too, to represent America in the diplomatic corps:
Thomas Dodd, brother of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, was named ambassador to Uruguay. And Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was named ambassador to Ireland.
At the Justice Department, however, two relatives is nothing. On April 29, in fact, four were appointed in a single day:
* Frank W. Hunger, brother-in-law of Mr. Gore, was selected to a top job in the civil division.
* Sheila Foster Anthony, the wife of Beryl Anthony, a former member of Congress from Arkansas and a longtime Clinton ally, was tabbed to head the Office of Legislative Affairs.
* Anne K. Bingaman, the wife of Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, was picked to head the antitrust division.
* And Eleanor Dean Acheson, granddaughter of Dean Acheson, secretary of state during the Truman administration, was named head of the Office of Legal Policy.
"If this administration succeeds, no one will pay much attention to any of this stuff," says Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta-based pollster. "But if they fail, this is exactly the kind of thing people will point to when trying to figure out why."