WASHINGTON - The Whitewater independent counsel was authorized yesterday to expand his investigation to include whether a former administration official lied about Hillary Rodham Clinton's alleged role in the 1993 firing of White House travel office employees.
The broadened scope of the investigation was granted by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals at the request of Attorney General Janet Reno. It allows the independent counsel to review the travel office affair a matter separate from the Whitewater land deal and the first lady's involvement in the firing of seven career employees.
The independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, was also granted authority to look into any possible cover-up related to the matter.
As a result, his inquiry could provide a fuller picture of the actions and veracity of the Clinton White House including the first lady in dealing with the Whitewater and travel office controversies that have dogged the administration from the start.
Ms. Reno's request came after the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, asked the Justice Department last month to find out if the former administration official, David Watkins, lied to the GAO in 1993 about the travel office firings.
The dismissals were the source of widespread criticism, even in an internal White House review. Critics charged that the travel office staff was fired on trumped-up charges of mismanagement merely to give the work to Clinton cronies in Arkansas.
The latest development has the potential to drag Mr. Starr's inquiry further into the election year, and to supply more material to the independent counsel and Republicans that is damaging or at least embarrassing to Mr. Clinton.
In a letter to the court, Ms. Reno said that, according to the GAO's referral, "there were material inconsistencies" between Mr. Watkins' statements to the accounting office and his handwritten notes and memos describing the travel office firings.
Ms. Reno said she wished to turn the matter over to Mr. Starr because he was already looking at travel office matters in connection with his investigation into the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel and because a Justice Department probe of the matter could interfere with the independent counsel's investigation.
Her letter confirmed for the first time that Mr. Starr was already examining the travel office controversy.
In Mr. Watkins' 1993 memo about the travel office firings a memo he described as "soul-cleansing" at the time the former aide suggested that he felt great pressure from Mrs. Clinton to fire the employees. There would be "hell to pay," he wrote, "if . . . we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the first lady's wishes."
In his memo, he says the first lady's sentiments were conveyed to him by Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, the White House chief of staff at the time, and by Mr. Foster.
In July 1993, less than two months after the travel office firings, Mr. Foster committed suicide. Several investigations have concluded that the travel office mess had contributed to his depression, and in a note he left behind, he indicated that it had weighed heavily on him.
In Mr. Watkins' interview with the GAO, however, he insisted that he made the decision to fire the travel office employees and replace them with a travel agency from Little Rock, Ark. and that the first lady had no involvement in the decision and had exerted no pressure. Mr. Watkins, who lost his job at the White House after using a military helicopter to travel to a golf outing, said he fired the staff after a private accounting firm found financial mismanagement.
Although Mr. Starr had already been looking at the travel office affair as it related to Mr. Foster's death, he now will be able to look directly at the decision to fire the travel office staff and the veracity of those involved, including Mrs. Clinton.
On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton submitted written responses to 26 questions from a House committee looking into "travelgate." Answering under oath, she said she had had "no decision-making role" in the firings. On 16 occasions, she responded with the words, "I do not recall."
In the past, she has said that, if she expressed any concerns about that office it was because she had heard rumors of financial mismanagement.
Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said that the expanded probe would help establish "what really happened and who was involved. The American people deserve to know if senior administration officials have been dishonest."
Joseph DiGenova, a lawyer who is a former Republican U.S. attorney for Washington, said the ruling was "probably the most serious development in the entire investigation" because it gave Mr. Starr the authority to tie Whitewater together with the travel office affair, and also bring obstruction of justice charges.
"This gets directly back to Vince Foster and the reason he committed suicide," he said. "It relates to motive, why certain files were removed from his office, why Justice Department officials were kept out of his office." This action also allows Mr. Starr to examine statements about the travel office made by Mrs. Clinton who "has some of the biggest vulnerability," Mr. DiGenova added.
The White House had no official response to yesterday's action. Some officials acknowledged that questions about Mr. Watkins and the travel office will lead Mr. Starr, inevitably, to examine Mrs. Clinton's actions and words regarding the dismissals.
But they said that, although Mr. Watkins' statements about the travel office have been inconsistent, the first lady's have been consistent. Attorneys in the White House counsel's office also said they were not surprised.
"Starr was already looking into these issues," said one White House official. "Remember, his mandate is Whitewater and 'related issues.' Vince Foster's state of mind was always what has made the travel office a related issue."
Pub Date: 3/23/96