WASHINGTON -- When White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu took off for ski resorts, Republican fund-raisers and his New Hampshire home during the past two years, he flew on one of the world's most exclusive airlines: the government's.
A fleet of 45 military jets, operated by the 89th Military Aircraft Wing at nearby Andrews Air Force Base, Md., is reserved solely for the use of top government officials and members of Congress.
The taxpayer-subsidized perk is coming under increased attention in the wake of reports that Mr. Sununu has taken more than 60 trips on military jets during the past two years, including 27 to his home state, New Hampshire, and nearby Boston.
Colorado ski resorts and Republican fund-raising events were among the other destinations, according to reports in the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report over the weekend.
The total cost: $500,000-plus. And by law, Mr. Sununu had to reimburse the government only a fraction of that amount.
Faced with persistent questioning about Mr. Sununu's travels, the White House is preparing to release records of the trips. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday that the records would show that the government had been reimbursed for Mr. Sununu's trips that were personal or political.
"There's no impropriety that has been shown here," Mr. Fitzwater said yesterday. "The costs have been reimbursed. It's operating according to policy."
But that policy calls for the official to pay only the equivalent of commercial air fare, far less than the hourly operating rate of $3,945 the Air Force charges the White House for use of the C-20 jets. That rate does not include the salaries of the five-member crew.
A House committee chairman has asked the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, to examine that policy to see if changes are needed.
Government Operations Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., also asked the GAO to investigate whether the reimbursement rules need to be modified and whether Mr. Sununu violated any regulations.
Mr. Sununu is authorized to fly on military aircraft under a 1987 directive issued by President Ronald Reagan. At the time, Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. was flying frequently to his home in Tennessee to be with his ailing wife and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz urged Mr. Reagan to issue the directive.
Tom Griscom, an aide to Mr. Baker in the White House, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Shultz believed the chief of staff and the national security adviser should be able to communicate with the White House over secure phone lines and be "in a position to get back to the White House at almost a moment's notice."
Mr. Fitzwater said the executive order does not require Mr. Sununu to fly on a military plane. "It's up to him how he conducts himself, how he utilizes the aircraft," he said.
Mr. Sununu returned yesterday on an Air Force jet from a weekend in New Hampshire, where he maintains a home in Salem. Friday night, he had addressed the Manchester Republican Committee. Mr. Fitzwater said President Bush discussed the travel issue with Mr. Sununu yesterday.
With an annual budget of about $160 million, the 89th's 45 aircraft are poised around-the-clock to cater to the wishes of the political elite, whether it's a presidential trip to California or a congressional jaunt to Europe. President Bush's Air Force One, a specially equipped Boeing 747, is the best-known aircraft in the 89th.
A Knight-Ridder examination of congressional travel records last fall turned up numerous expensive foreign trips by members of Congress using military jets, among them a February 1990 trip to France and Belgium for nine lawmakers and 10 staff members that cost $60,631.52, an average of $3,191 per person.
A commercial flight with a 21-day advance purchase would have cost about $700 per person.