WASHINGTON -- David Watkins, a top White House official with a long history with President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in Arkansas, was fired yesterday after it was revealed that he took a golf trip Tuesday aboard a presidential helicopter.
"Mr. Watkins has resigned, and the taxpayers will be fully reimbursed," a stern Mr. Clinton said at a news conference yesterday. "The Treasury will not be out one red cent for whatever happened there."
Privately, White House officials characterized Mr. Watkins' departure as a dismissal.
Though little known to the public, the influential Mr. Watkins was one of the highest-ranking officials in the Clinton White House. He earned a salary of $125,000 a year and was in charge of the office of management and administration, overseeing the day-to-day workings of the White House.
The controversy -- not Mr.Watkins' first since he joined the White House staff -- concerns a trip he took Tuesday aboard a presidential helicopter to Holly Hills Country Club near New Market. A local newspaper photographer took a picture of the helicopter, which is called Marine One when the president is aboard, but didn't know the identity of the White House aides who had just finished their round of golf.
In yesterday's editions of The Sun, Mr. Watkins was identified as one of the three aides in the picture. The others were Alphonso Maldon Jr., head of the White House military office, and Navy Cmdr. Richard E. Cellon, identified by White House aides as the commanding officer at Camp David.
Last night, the White House released a statement saying that Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, after reviewing the incident, had reprimanded Mr. Maldon -- and ordered him reassigned. "No other actions will be taken against [other] personnel involved," the statement said. "The chief of staff regrets having to take these actions, but believes the staff's errors in judgment made them necessary."
When contacted initially about this matter by The Sun, White House officials characterized the trip as a planning trip for a future presidential visit, explaining that the helicopter was necessary for reasons of security and pilot training.
The officials had no explanation, however, for why Mr. Watkins' presence was required.
Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers distanced herself from the original explanation, saying that she knew of no plans for Mr. Clinton to golf at Holly Hills.
Asked specifically whether the trip did indeed involve presidential advance work and if there were "security explanations" for it, she replied, "Those are the questions that the chief of staff will be looking into. Again, I mean, this is something that we take very seriously."
Just how seriously became apparent hours later when Mr. Clinton was announcing his trade policy toward China. Asked if he had anything to say about the golf excursion, the president paused briefly before replying somberly, "Yeah, I do."
After saying he'd known nothing about the incident beforehand, the president described himself as "very upset" about it.
"All I can tell you is, when I found out about it I asked Mr. McLarty to look into it," he added.
Last year, Mr. McLarty formally reprimanded Mr. Watkins over another embarrassing matter, his role in firing the White House travel office and attempting to replace them with an Arkansas travel agency to which he once had ties.
Mr. Watkins, 52, hails from Hope, Ark., the president's hometown, and is a longtime political adviser who worked in Mr. Clinton's many campaigns. He is a friend and one-time business partner of Mrs. Clinton's.
Mr. Watkins was also criticized last year by members of Congress for back-dating White House personnel appointments and pay raises.
The golfing expedition was denounced all day by Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Reps. Roscoe Bartlett of Western Maryland and Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the second-ranking House Republican.
It was Mr. Bartlett who first drew attention to the matter when he noticed a picture of the helicopter in a local paper. "Is it necessary for staff to actually play a course to determine if it is satisfactory for a presidential visit?" the Maryland Republican asked in a letter to the president. "Or were White House staff members just enjoying a day off at taxpayer expense?"
Mr. Bartlett also referred in his letter to the controversy sparked by Bush administration Chief of Staff John Sununu, who took U.S. military aircraft -- at significant cost to taxpayers -- on a Colorado ski vacation, a trip to his dentist in New England and other jaunts. After the story broke, Mr. Sununu dismayed even the president by taking, at taxpayer expense, a limousine to New York to attend a stamp show.
Such behavior was cited by White House officials when Mr. Clinton, upon assuming office, pledged to run the tightest ethics ship the White House had ever seen.
So far, however, his White House counsel has resigned over his handling of Whitewater documents; associate White House counsel William H. Kennedy III was reassigned for not paying Social Security taxes; Webster Hubbell, the number-three lawyer at the Justice Department, quit to fight charges he overbilled clients while a law partner in Little Rock; and a dozen White House officials have been subpoenaed as part of the Whitewater investigation.