Retired Rep. Bill Zeliff, who probed Waco siege, dies at 85

Oct 19, 2021, 2:25 PM | Updated: 3:01 pm

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff, a three-term Republican best known for helping lead the congressional investigation of the government’s disastrous siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, has died. He was 85.

Zeliff, who represented southern and eastern New Hampshire in the U.S. House from 1991 to 1997, died Monday, according to Farley Funeral Homes and Crematory in Venice, Florida, where he had retired. He died after declining health, his wife told WMUR-TV in New Hampshire.

“Congressman Bill Zeliff was a dear friend,” Gov. Chris Sununu, a fellow Republican, said in a statement. “My entire family joins the people of New Hampshire in mourning his passing. He was a true public servant, always had a smile, and was a tireless advocate for the Granite State and our Live Free or Die Spirit.”

Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas, who represents the district Zeliff once did, said he was a “champion to many people and causes across our state.”

“Bill’s kindness and can-do spirit underpinned a successful career in politics and business, and I join Granite Staters in mourning his loss,” he said in a statement.

While in the U.S. House, Zeliff chaired the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice and was a deputy Republican whip. He was known as a fiscal conservative and advocate of budget reform.

In 1995, Zeliff was a leader of hearings investigating the 1993 Branch Davidian siege. Cult leader David Koresh and nearly 80 followers died, some from bullet wounds, after their compound burned down. FBI agents had used tanks to inject tear gas into the wooden building, which caught fire.

Zeliff at one point suggested that then-President Bill Clinton, not Attorney General Janet Reno, had made the decision to mount the tear gas attack. Reno unwaveringly defended her decision to use the gas to end the Waco siege and rebuffed Republicans’ persistent attempts to blame Clinton, a Democrat.

But Zeliff wasn’t convinced. “I find it disturbing that it is the attorney general, and not the president, who steps forward to state, ‘The buck stops with me,”´ he said.

At the time he was Republican co-chair of the House Waco hearings, Zeliff was fined $30,000 by the Federal Election Commission for campaign finance violations.

He was accused of improperly using money from his business for his 1990 congressional race, failing to properly report loans he made to his campaign, and neglecting to quickly repay his business for services it provided in his House race.

Zeliff insisted that although he had done no wrong, the FEC case had become too costly to fight.

Zeliff was born in East Orange, New Jersey, and went to school at Milford High School in Milford, Connecticut, and the University of Connecticut. He had a career in sales and marketing and also served in the U.S. Army Reserve.

In 1976, he and his wife, Synda Zeliff, bought and ran the Christmas Farm Inn in Jackson, New Hampshire. They sold it in 2000.

Zeliff became involved in New Hampshire Republican politics in the 1980s, running unsuccessfully for the New Hampshire state Senate in 1984 and then serving as a delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, which nominated then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for president.

He represented New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Manchester, the state’s largest city. He did not run for a fourth term, but instead ran for governor. Zeliff was defeated in the Republican primary by attorney Ovide LaMontagne, who went on to lose to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in the general election.

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Retired Rep. Bill Zeliff, who probed Waco siege, dies at 85