By Patrick Rogers
January 29, 1996 12:00 PM

SAM DONALDSON NEEDED HELP fast. Speeding toward London’s Heathrow airport in then-President Ronald Reagan’s motorcade following an economic summit in 1982, the ABC News correspondent discovered his passport was missing. Not to worry, he thought, and turned to Billy Dale, director of the White House Travel Office. After 20 years in the business, Dale had a special talent for booking last-minute flights, locating lost bags and generally easing the passage of members of the White House press corps. “Billy sent one of his staff back to the hotel for my passport,” says Donaldson. “He knew I had to be on the air. We counted on him, and he always came through.”

For reporters who traveled with the President, Dale, 58, was the man to know—that is until May 19, 1993, when he and his staff of six were abruptly fired by Bill Clinton. This week, Dale plans to appear before a committee of the Republican-led House of Representatives investigating those firings, at least the fourth such inquiry to date. Originally accused of “gross mismanagement,” five of the six staffers were given new government jobs; one chose retirement. Dale, however, was investigated by the FBI and charged with embezzling $68,000, largely because of his unorthodox practice of keeping thousands of dollars in business refunds in his personal checking account to cover travel-office contingencies.

It took a federal jury in Washington just two hours to find Dale not guilty of the charge last November. “I thought when I was acquitted it would end,” says Dale. But now the 32-year career bureaucrat, with $500,000 in unpaid legal bills, is again at the center of a political firestorm. Earlier this month, the White House released a 1993 memo by former Clinton aide David Watkins concerning the role of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has denied any involvement in the firings. “We knew there would be hell to pay,” Watkins wrote of the days before Dale’s dismissal, “if…we failed to [act] in conformity with the First Lady’s wishes.”

As President, Bill Clinton has the right to make personnel changes at the White House. What rankled Dale and his press corps supporters was the incivility of the firings. “The Clinton White House was cruel to sic the FBI on [its employees],” says Laurence Barrett, a former TIME White House correspondent. “What they really needed was an efficiency expert.”

If Dale’s career has ended in controversy, its beginning was strictly routine. In 1961, Dale, the son of a home-maker and a coal miner from Grundy, Va., was working for the Veteran’s Administration in Washington as a communications specialist, a role he had learned during four years in the Air Force. “My boss said, ‘How would you like to earn more money doing the same kind of work?’ ” he recalls. Dale was delighted, but became nervous when he learned the opening was at the White House. “I told them I’d have to go home and talk to my wife about it,” he says. Blanche Dale, the high school sweetheart he had married in 1958, was optimistic. “She said, ‘Why not?’ ” Dale recalls. ” ‘If you don’t like it, you can always leave.’ ”

In fact, he loved it. Dale started out as a telegraph operator for President John F. Kennedy and by 1982 was director of the travel office. In his $80,000-a-year job, he became expert at accommodating members of the press, whose employers were billed for the first-class air travel and luxury hotels booked by Dale’s office. “The theory was that a happy press corps is less likely to write a negative story,” Dale explains. “The White House press works awfully hard, and so does the staff. We were like family.”

But with the Clintons’ arrival in 1993, the family vibes started to fade. Two of the new President’s close associates wanted to restructure the $4-to $6-million-a-year travel operation: Clinton’s distant cousin Catherine Cornelius, a Houston travel agent, suggested she could trim its budget by $210,000 annually (a government study later determined her plan would have saved only $10,000), and his pal, TV producer Harry Thomason (Designing Women), was looking for business for an air charter company in which he was a partner. On May 14 the Administration brought in outside accountants to audit the office and found $18,000 in cash unaccounted for. Dale and his staff were fired five days later.

“I never thought this could happen to me,” says Dale, who acknowledges using “poor judgment” at work. During the investigation, the FBI grilled all three of his children—Steven, 36, a computer engineer; Vicky Good, 32, an AT&T systems analyst; and Kim Flannagan, 30, a computer systems analyst—about the family’s finances. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” Dale says. Now, with his name cleared, he could apply for a new government job, but says he prefers retirement: “I have no desire to go back to the travel office. It hurt me tremendously to see what we had worked years to build up torn down in one day.”