WASHINGTON -- John H. Sununu, the combative White House chief of staff, found himself at the center of a new political squall yesterday following news accounts of his extensive travel aboard military aircraft on personal and political trips, as well as on official business.
The White House said that Mr. Sununu's travels were in full compliance with federal policy, which a spokesman said requires him to use military aircraft on all trips, and that he had paid the government commercial airline rates for any trips that were not official presidential missions.
But the White House refused to release records to back its assertions, and Democrats seized on the issue.
Representative Bob Wise, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Government Information, Justice and Agriculture, said the full committee would ask congressional auditors today to investigate Mr. Sununu's use of government aircraft.
The issue was raised in separate accounts published over the weekend by U.S.News & World Report and the Washington Post.
Both said Mr. Sununu had taken more than 60 flights aboard Air Force jets on official business, Republican Party business and holidays in 1990.
U.S. News said the trips were "raising eyebrows" among White House detractors of Mr. Sununu, whose iron-fisted rule of the president's staff has stirred periodic revolts.
The U.S. News account said that no one had charged that Mr. Sununu had violated the law and that his staff said he repaid the government for personal trips based on whathe and his family would have paid on scheduled airlines.
But the magazine said unidentified detractors in the administration questioned his behavior because President Bush has insisted that his staff avoid even the appearance of ethics problems.
The White House said that under a policy in effect since 1987, the chief of staff and the national security adviser must use Air Force planes on official and non-official business.
The primary reason, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday, is to ensure that their communications to Washington areelectronically secure.
Under the policy, the officials must pay the government the equivalent of a full-fare coach ticket on a commercial airline, plus one dollar, for any non-official flights.
The Post and U.S. News & World Report both raised questions about the gap between the actual cost of the flights and the commercial rates.
One example the Post used was a round-trip flight between Washington and Aspen, Colo., last December for a skiing trip that it said cost the government about $30,000, as against a commercial fare of $1,076.