when a recently released memo placed First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the center of the White House Travel Office firings, some called it the smoking gun of Travelgate. Here's the proof, they said: She did it and she lied about it.

But students of Travelgate have long known Mrs. Clinton was a major player. What most " intrigues them are questions absent from the press coverage in the past two weeks. Questions like: Why was the Travel Office so important to the new administration? What was going on in the White House that led the First Lady and top officials to rush into action on such a seemingly insignificant issue, firing seven longtime officials and siccing the FBI on them as well? What is the bigger picture of Travelgate?

New information obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD provides at least some of the answers. According to that information and documents released earlier by the House committee investigating the scandal, the takeover of the Travel Office was just the first step in a much larger plan involving the president, the first lady, and their Arkansas/Hollywood friend Harry Thomason. Under the plan, Thomason and his partner in the aircraft consulting firm TRM, Darnell Martens, would have been given a profitable and permanent role in government -- all quite apart from the White House Travel Office. The new information shows just how extensive the plan was.

Thomason performed all sorts of very public services for the Clintohs during the campaign and transition. He produced The Man From Hope, the treacly if effective biographical film played at the convention that nominated Clinton. And he produced the inaugural events that ushered the Clintons into office. ( It is easy to forget just how extravagant it all was -- remember the national bell-ringing, the Monticello bus trip, the Lincoln Memorial concert, the Hollywood-style gala featuring Barbra Streisand?) Thomason did it all without pay. The new president certainly owed him a favor.

It appears that the payback began barely a week into the new administration. On January 29, 1993, Martens wrote a memo to Thomason.

The memo laid out a plan for Thomason and Martens to play significant roles in the world of federal aviation. "If we are to pursue Washington opportunities," Martens wrote, TRM needed to "obtain some form of official status as advisors [sic] to the White House for general aviation policy matters." Once that was accomplished, the next step was to propose a large- scale consulting project to be done by TRM. Martens's idea was a plan to " review all non- military government aircraft to determine financial and operational appropriateness." He said he could save the taxpayers millions of dollars by running the government's 1,800-plane fleet more efficiently.

In the memo, Martens recommended that he and Thomason visit Washington to meet with officials at the Department of Transportation and the White House to discuss the plan. He also mentioned that they should "determine who controls the scheduling of the White House press corps aircraft. This can be done by TRM, much as the campaign aircraft were handled." Finally, Martens added that TRM should be involved in "FAA Administrator: selection assistance, policy recommendations."

This Jan. 29 document is astonishing in the breadth of its ambitions; Thomason and Martens seemed to be planning to set themselves up as a sort of kitchen-cabinet Federal Aviation Administration. The Travel Office takeover seemed a relatively small part of the plan.

At a February 10 Cabinet meeting, Clinton mentioned that his "staff" had told him that lots of money could be saved by reviewing the operation of all government aircraft. On February 11, citing the president's statement, Martens wrote a second and more detailed memo to Thomason. He proposed a "plane by plane" inventory of the government's fleet. "We've demonstrated our capabilities to the President by coordinating all aircraft activities for the Clinton For President Committee," Martens wrote. "Now we have an opportunity to make a substantive contribution to the deficit reduction plans." He estimated the cost of the one-year audit at $ 499,000. All that was needed, he continued, was for someone to "put me in front of the right person at the White House and I will prove the value of both the project and Thomason's capabilities."

The "right person" turned out to be the one in the Oval Office. A short time later, Thomason discussed the memo with the president. By February 17, the memo had been stamped "THE PRESIDENT HAS SEEN." Clinton jotted a few notes in the margins. "These guys are sharp," he wrote, forwarding the memo to chief of staff Mack McLarty, McLarty deputy Mark Gearan, and White House administration director David Watkins for action.

With the president's approval, Martens went to work planning the details. " Based on your discussion with President Clinton of my 2/11/93 memo," he wrote Thomason, "I began the process of obtaining specific information regarding the scope of the work . . . the President believes in it." Martens contacted officials of the General Services Administration, which runs something called the Interagency Committee on Aviation Policy, or ICAP There is evidence that the officials didn't really like the idea -- one wrote "the fact is this is a relatively low priority from a government-wide standpoint . . . we have more important uses for ICAP funds." He also mentioned that the project might have to be put up for competitive bidding. Nonetheless, with White House backing, the idea moved ahead.

Meanwhile, Martens was making incredible claims for the project. "I now belie ve that TRM can identify savings to the government of several hundred million d ollars," he wrote to Thomason on March 12. "A very conservative estimate would be $ 300 million initially and $ 150 million per year thereafter." The savings would come from better management of the fleet and a plan to shift much of the government's air business to private companies -- like TRM.

On April 7, Martens met with presidential aide Bruce Lindsey to go over the plan. On April 12, he sent a memo to Lindsey. Now that all the preliminaries were taken care of, Martens told Lindsey, the president should (a) issue an executive order giving ICAP the authority to order the audit, and (b) enter into a consulting agreement with Thomason and Martens's firm to do the actual work. In addition, Thomason and Martens came up with yet another reason to do the deal. "In discussing this with Harry Thomason after our meeting," Martens wrote, "he noted the same synergistic opportunities we discussed. Such as regenerating single-engine aircraft: production in America. ." (Thomason also owned an aircraft repair business in California.) Lest any more reason be needed, Martens added that "this project falls solidly under the heading of re4nventing government. On May 6, Martens sent detailed plans of the ICAP project to top officials at the Office of Management and Budget.

The plan to take over the White House Travel Office was moving along simultaneously. During the months of February, March, and April, Thomason and Martens were making a case for the ouster of the long-time office staff. In early May, Thomason told the first lady and others he had a plan in place to have the Travel Offce up and running smoothly within an hour of any firings. He was at the White House almost constantly in the days before and after the firings, which occurred on May 19. Information obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD indicates Thomason was in the White House each day from early morning until evening from May 10 through May 21. Documents indicate Thomason was in close contact during those days with the president, the first lady, their top advisers, and Mrs. Clinton's friend Susan Thomases, who also seems to have played a central role in the firings. On the 1 lth, for example, Thomason had a message to call the first lad35 a message to call Susan Thomases, a 2 p.m. meeting with Mack McLarty, and a 3 p.m. meeting with Thomases.

What all this reveals is that not only was the first lady deeply involved in Travelgate, but so was the president himself. On May 12, according to information obtained by congressional investigators, Thomason met with Clinton in the Oval Office from 8:30 to 8:45 a.m. -- and though 15 minutes doesn't sound like a lot of time, it's not an inconsiderable appointment with a president, whose day is planned down to the minute. Later that day, Thomason met separately with White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster and the first lady. On the 13th, Thomason met again with the president in the Oval Office -- this time for 30 minutes, from 8:45 to 9:15 a.m. On the 14th, according to the newly released account by David Watkins, the first lady "cited Thomason's plan as support for the need for immediate action."

Things were moving very quickly. But on the 19th, it all blew up in the administration's face. The Travel Office firings stirred up a storm of press attention and forced the administration to retreat from its original plans for the office. The heat forced White House officials to conduct an investigation in which they found themselves guilty of insensitivity and slapped their own wrists. Those officials, no doubt, wished the whole thing would just go away. In that atmosphere, Thomason's aircraft project died a quiet death.

In the papers that have been released so far, there is little mention of the TRM consulting project after May 1993. Oddly, it resurfaced briefly in August, when at least two officials, deputy chief of staff Roy Neel and White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, felt the need to write memos saying they never had anything to do with the aircraft project. Nussbaum's August 9, 1993, memo to then-Office of Management and Budget director Leon Panetta reads in part: "I have been advised of a proposal for an audit of federal aircraft by TRM. Although I have been advised of a few meetings and memoranda regarding this proposal, I understand that no government action has been taken with respect to it. I also understand that, several weeks ago, the White House advised OMB that no government action should be taken on this proposal. I want to confirm and reiterate the prior instruction that no government action be taken on this proposal."

The two-track nature of the actions taken by Thomason and the White House is especially baffling.

On one track, they were planning a major project that might eventually result in TRM taking over large chunks of U.S. government aviation. On the other, they were plotting to take over the relatively small operation of the White House Tr avel Office. Why? Why do the small job when the bigger one beckoned? The best a nswer yet is contained in Martens' s January 29 memo.

Martens wrote that if he and Thomason were to "pursue Washington opportunities," they had to "obtain some form of official status." Running the White House Travel Office would have given them that status. It would provide them the institutional base they needed -- the office, the letterhead, the White House address -- if they were going to run their proposed aviation business out of the White House. They'd be in. To that end, Thomason and Martens each received a White House pass; Martens's security paperwork said he was being considered for a White House staff position, reporting to Harry Thomason and David Watkins. The aircraft project also helps answer another lingering question: If Thomason is so rich, and the Travel Office is so small, why was he involved? Remember what Thomason's wife and partner, superstar sitcom producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, said at the time. They made a six- figure income each week, she boasted. Why would she and her husband say," "Ooh, I'm going to like, take my six- figure salary a week and fly off to Washington and see if I can't get those seven little guys out of that travel office in the White House." It's sort of the equivalent of taking over a lemonade stand." And indeed it was, if one only considers the Travel Office. When one adds the aircraft project, things look a little different.

Add it all together, and it is impossible to understand Travelgate without understanding the aircraft project. But there is a still larger picture: Investigators believe that without an understanding of Travelgate, it is impossible to comprehend the series of events surrounding the death of Vincent Foster that now form the core of the investigation being carried out by the Senate Whitewater Committee. Specifically, why did a sense of panic grip the administration the night Foster killed himself?. Despite all the attention given to Whitewater matters, Travelgate may play a more significant role in answering the question.

There is ample documentation to show that Foster

"No one in the White House, to my knowledge, violated any law or standard of conduct, including any action in the travel office. There was no intent to benefit any individual or specific group."

"The FBI lied in their report to the AG."

"The press is covering up the illegal benefits they received from the travel staff."

"The GOP has lied and misrepresented its knowledge and role and covered up a prior investigation."

Several of Foster's other statements seem to be related to Travelgate -- including his statements, "I did not knowingly violate any law or standard of conduct," and "the public will never believe the innocence of the Clintons and their loyal staff" (some observers believe the last phrase actually reads " their legal staff"; the handwriting is unclear).

Congressional investigators believe that critical Travelgate documents were in Foster's office when he died and that the White House may still be withholding them. For example, the administration has said that Foster's briefcase contained drafts of executive orders, but it will not release the executive orders, claiming they are privileged material. The papers were taken out of the briefcase by Nussbaum and later placed in Foster's "Travel" file. Investigators have inquired whether they included a draft executive order -- never signed -- to implement the Thomason/Martens aircraft project. as outlined by Martens's memo of April 12. The White House says the files did not contain such a document. Congressional investigators have also asked the White House about a memo described to investigators as a compilation of the allegations of wrongdoing in the Travel Office gathered by Thomason, Martens, and Travelgate figure (and Clinton cousin) Catherine Cornelius.

The presence of more Travelgate documents in Foster's office would help explain the first lady's actions in the wake of Foster's death. Notified while at her mother's home in Arkansas, she made three long-distance calls that night. The first was to her chief of staff, Maggie Williams. The third was to her closest adviser, Susan Thomases. And the call in the middle was to... Harry Thomason. Both Williams and Thomases have described the conversations as out- pourings of grief. But what about Thomason? He didn't really know Foster, unlike some administration figures who had known Foster for decades. Yet one of the first lady's first reactions when she learned of Foster's death was a desire to talk to Harry Thomason. It seems only reasonable to ask whether they were talking about Travelgate, which was bigger than any outsider knew at the time.

The new evidence uncovered by both the House committee investigating Travelga te and the Senate Whitewater Committee suggests the two scandals merged in Fost er's office. He had the documents. His suicide shocked the White House to the c ore and sent top officials scurrying to collect those papers the Clintons consi dered most sensitive. If you want to know why they did what they did, the answer may not be Whitewater. It may be Travelgate. ,

Byron is a writer and televisions producer in Washington, D. C. His article "Reelecting Clinton: A Conservative Case" appeared in the Oct. 2, 1995, issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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