WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration on Sunday defended Chief of Staff John H. Sununu's wide-ranging travels aboard military planes, but two congressional Democrats called for an accounting of Sununu's trips.
The White House said that the trips were "in accordance with official authorization," even if some appeared to be for personal or partisan political reasons.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, said he had written to the General Accounting Office, an investigative agency of Congress, asking for a review of Sununu's trips. Conyers said he is seeking to determine what reimbursements were made for non-official travel and "whether any laws or administrative rules or regulations were violated."
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that taxpayers deserve "a full accounting of the potential misuse of public funds and a reimbursement of every penny spent by John Sununu for his own personal pleasure and agenda."
The statements came in response to stories in Sunday's Washington Post and this week's U.S. News & World Report that Sununu--at a cost to taxpayers of more than $500,000--used military jets for more than 60 trips over the past two years. The travel included flights to Colorado ski resorts, Republican fund-raising events and his home state of New Hampshire.
"Gov. Sununu's travel has been in accordance with official authorization for chief of staff travel," said a terse White House statement issued from Camp David, where the President spent the weekend.
The Post quoted Marlin Fitzwater, the presidential press secretary, as saying that White House policy requires Sununu to use military aircraft so that he could remain in "immediate voice contact with the White House at all times." But neither Fitzwater nor Sununu's office would say whether any of the personal or political trips had been reimbursed at full commercial rates, which is also dictated by the policy.
The Associated Press said, however, that White House spokesman John Herrick telephoned news agencies later Sunday to add: "Reimbursements for Gov. Sununu's travels have always been made to the government whenever appropriate."
On Sunday, Vice President Dan Quayle and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney also defended the former New Hampshire governor.
"He knows what is right and what is wrong, and I don't think he did anything wrong," Quayle said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
On CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Cheney said Sununu was following a policy established in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan that both the White House chief of staff and the national security adviser "always travel on military aircraft."
These officials need "secure voice communications at all times with Washington, with the White House," Cheney said.
According to Pentagon records, Sununu usually flies in a C-20, the sleek, 12-passenger, twin-engine jet that is the military version of the Gulfstream III corporate jet. The Air Force keeps several C-20s at Andrews Air Force Base for such VIPs as Barbara Bush. President Bush himself flies aboard a C-20 when he is bound for airports too small to accommodate his jumbo jet, Air Force One.
The Associated Press said that the Air Force lists the C-20's hourly operating rate at $3,945, not counting the salaries of the five-member crew. Reimbursement at commercial airfare rates would cover only a fraction of that cost.
Among the trips Sununu made on military aircraft, the newspaper reported, were those to the Indianapolis 500 auto race, a charity ski event in New Hampshire and political fund raisers for incumbent governors in Kansas and Nebraska. By comparison, two of Sununu's predecessors during the Reagan Administration each made fewer than 10 such trips--over a period of six years, according to the news magazine.