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Whitewash in the White House


After "investigating" its own purge of the White House travel office, the Clinton administration has decided it "did the right thing but did it in the wrong way." They're half right, anyway.

They certainly did it in the wrong way. But we can't agree they did the right thing.

The undisputed facts are that seven civil servants were publicly fired amid broad insinuations of corrupt conduct without substantial evidence, at the behest of relatives and cronies of President Clinton with clear conflicts of interest. The FBI was dragged in by a mid-level White House lawyer in blatant violation of accepted procedures in an attempt to create the illusion of criminal misconduct where there was none.

Thomas F. McLarty, White House chief of staff, agrees now that none of the above should have happened. But he continues to insist that the travel office, which arranges business trips for officials and for the White House press corps, needed a housecleaning because it was poorly managed. Even on the basis of his half-baked investigation, the evidence of mismanagement is dwarfed by clear signs of political meddling.

At least two people, one a Clinton relative and the other a White House aide, started spreading stories of improper handling of funds in the office before anyone had a shred of evidence to support the charge. The cousin, Catherine A. Cornelius, was planted in the office to spy on the employees and subsequently was named to head the office -- clearly her objective from the start.

Also in the shadows was Harry Thomason, the television producer and close buddy of the Clintons, who is part-owner of an airline leasing company that wanted the White House business. How better to get it than replace the people who had been running the office for many years with a hometown crony? A couple of others in the travel business with Clinton connections also got involved in the mud-slinging. So, it now appears, did Hillary Rodham Clinton, who made pointed inquiries about the so-called mismanagement.

This is pretty shoddy stuff. The misuse of the FBI in a baldly political patronage grab and a threat to involve the Internal Revenue Service if the FBI didn't move quickly enough revives memories of the Watergate cover-up by the Nixon administration. That unhappy episode demonstrated conclusively that the White House is incapable of investigating its own peccadilloes. No one involved in this abuse of power is being punished, except for the hapless travel office employees.

Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kans., insists there should be an independent investigation by the Justice Department. We agree.

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