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Sen. Daschle Defends His Intervention in Dispute Over Air Safety Inspections : Aviation: Minority leader deflects criticism that his measure to strip Forest Service authority led to fatal plane crash.

February 18, 1995|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) released a detailed report Friday defending his intervention in a dispute over safety inspections between federal regulators and a friend whose air charter company was involved in a fatal plane crash last year.

Prepared by Robert Bauer, Daschle's attorney, the 31-page report attempts to refute allegations that the senator sought to strip the U.S. Forest Service of its authority to independently inspect air charter companies that it uses for contract work. His friend's firm had had trouble passing the safety inspections.

Daschle's two-year feud with the Forest Service received national attention after the Feb. 24 crash in North Dakota of a charter plane owned by Murl Bellew, a longtime friend who had sought the senator's help in ending what the report describes as "duplicative" safety inspections of charter companies by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Forest Service.

"The senator did what he thought, and continues to believe, was right," Bauer wrote, adding that Daschle's intervention had "nothing to do" with the crash near Minot, N.D., of a single-engine Cessna owned by Bellew's charter service, B&L Aviation of Rapid City, S.D.

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Seeking to dispel an ethics controversy that may cloud his senior Democratic leadership position in the Senate, Daschle asked Bauer, a prominent Washington attorney who specializes in ethics matters, to prepare the report after CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" broadcast a documentary on the plane crash earlier this month.

Bauer's report said the CBS program had suggested unfairly that there was a connection between the crash, in which three government doctors were killed, and Daschle's efforts on behalf of B&L. The program implied that the crash "might have been averted by more rigorous inspections (that were) possibly impeded by actions of the senator," the report said.

Those actions included an effort begun in June, 1992, originally at Bellew's behest, to have the FAA assume the flight inspection responsibilities that the Forest Service conducted independently for the contract charter companies it hires for "special missions," such as predator control and aerial spraying to combat forest fires.

Beginning with a series of letters to Administration officials and ending with the introduction of legislation passed last October, Daschle sought to eliminate the Forest Service inspections on the ground that they unnecessarily duplicated those already being conducted by the FAA, the government agency primarily responsible for air safety.

"The additional inspections . . . by the Forest Service would seem to largely duplicate the work of the FAA," costing both the government and the charter companies "valuable time and money without any apparent enhancement of safety," Daschle wrote to then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in February of last year, three weeks before the B&L crash.

The Forest Service initially maintained that the nature of missions flown under its jurisdiction required a higher standard of inspection than that normally done by the FAA. But the Clinton Administration finally agreed that the FAA could better perform the safety inspections and save money in the process, Bauer noted, adding that at no time did Daschle ever suggest that safety standards should be relaxed.

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Although he and Bellew were good friends--Bellew taught the senator how to fly--Daschle got involved in the issue not out of friendship but because he believed that a needless "duplication in government regulations" was imposing an undue burden on a number of air charter companies in his state, Bauer said.

"The political influence used was the influence of a United States senator trying to pass a piece of legislation that he believed in and thought was right. . . . Others may disagree, but the existence of disagreement is not a scandal or evidence of ethical misconduct," Bauer concluded.

He also noted that federal investigators later determined that the cause of the Minot crash was pilot error, not equipment failure, and that the plane in question only months earlier had passed both Forest Service and FAA inspections.

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