WASHINGTON -- Billy R. Dale, fired by President Clinton as White House travel director two years ago, has been falsely accused of embezzlement for trying to save money for White House reporters through his own inexact system of handling their funds, Mr. Dale's lawyer told jurors yesterday at the opening of his criminal trial.
Mr. Dale, a White House employee for more than 30 years, was fired along with six others in an early administration travel office shake-up that embarrassed the president and some close friends. There were no criminal charges at that time.
Steve Tabackman, Mr. Dale's defense attorney, said that Mr. Dale's indictment last December -- 18 months after the dismissals -- was based on the discovery that he had put 55 checks from news media people through his own bank account, an action that the lawyer termed "a disastrous business judgment."
"There is absolutely no proof he took those funds and converted them into his personal use," Mr. Tabackman told jurors in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler.
However, Raymond Hulser, the federal prosecutor, insisted in his opening statement that Mr. Dale had embezzled $68,000 between 1988 and 1993 to help build a Virginia lakefront vacation home.
"Thousands of dollars were entrusted to him, funds belonging to the press that covered the White House," the prosecutor said. "But he helped himself to that money."
Over a five-year period he took checks as well as petty cash "quietly, carefully, and gradually," Mr. Hulser said, exhibiting large charts detailing specific sums. He told the jury that, when Mr. Dale "got caught red-handed," he gave different explanations for missing funds to different employees in his office, such as "I set some aside" or "I just forgot to write it down."
A congressional hearing last week rekindled the travel office controversy by revealing that it was inspired by complaints of mismanagement from some Clinton associates who were seeking a share of the travel business. Most of the employees, but not Mr. Dale, were later offered other government jobs in what the White House called a "corrective" step.
A Justice Department official testified to Congress that the May 1993 firings were "ill-advised and erroneous actions."
Neither Mr. Hulser nor Mr. Tabackman referred to the political controversy in their opening statements, although Mr. Tabackman is expected to portray Mr. Dale as a scapegoat in his questioning of witnesses. Judge Kessler has told attorneys on both sides that she wants Mr. Dale to be tried on simple embezzlement charges without getting the jury distracted by White House politics.
Mr. Tabackman said that Mr. Dale -- under pressure from some news media executives to hold down the cost of presidential press travel -- sometimes used refunds from telephone companies or airline charters to reduce the costs of future trips. The lawyer acknowledged that those refund checks should have gone directly to newspaper companies or television networks because they represented overpayments by the news media for past trips.
On other occasions, Mr. Dale deposited checks from reporters into his personal account so he could obtain large sums of cash to pay bellmen, bus drivers and luggage handlers for the traveling press corps, Mr. Tabackman said.
But Mr. Dale's handwritten "cash logs" that could prove this money was properly used have disappeared because of careless record-handling by new office managers who had access to the files after Mr. Dale's dismissal, he said. "The evidence isn't going to show any high living by Billy Dale," Mr. Tabackman concluded. "He didn't spend any of this money on himself."