WASHINGTON -- For a dinner and speech with fellow sk enthusiasts at a black-tie New York fund-raiser last fall, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu flew with his wife and other guests by Air Force jet from Andrews Air Force Base, saddling taxpayers with a flight bill of almost $8,000.
Mr. Sununu called it an "official" engagement, according to White House records. This meant he did not have to reimburse the government the equivalent of a far less costly commercial air ticket, as regulations would have required if he had deemed it a "personal" trip.
The dinner, at the Time-Life Building in Manhattan Nov. 7, was one of several skiing, or ski-related, functions President Bush's chief aide has attended the past two years -- often flying in official jets, usually 14-seater C-20Bs, sometimes alone, at costs many times more than commercial air fares.
The New York dinner, at which Mr. Sununu reportedly spent less than four hours, was hosted by the Jimmie Heuga Center, a non-profit organization that researches and treats multiple sclerosis victims. Named after a U.S. Olympic bronze medalist skier who became crippled with the disease, the Heuga center, based in Avon, Colo., is closely tied to skiing and the ski industry and hasheld a dinner for ski enthusiasts in New York each year since 1985.
While by no means the most expensive of Mr. Sununu's forays, the dinner is an example of the kind of trips -- 77 of them -- he took in the military aircraft in 27 months. It also serves to illustrate the often-fuzzy distinctions among official, personal and political functions in some of the highest echelons of government.
An outcry over the overlapping functions, as much as the exorbitant costs, has prompted President Bush to order a review of White House travel policy.
Critics say, for instance, that some of Mr. Sununu's "official" excursions seem to have had political overtones: His "official" (government-paid) flight to a four-day New Hampshire ski fest in February 1990 would not have harmed the former state governor's election chances if, as rumored, he was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate after his White House appointment ends.
As for November's flight to New York, White House records show that Mr. Sununu did pay $280 to cover the fare of his wife, Nancy. But the records do not show that he recouped the money from the Jimmie Heuga Center, which the center's executive medical director, Dick Hicks, said last week that he had done.
Commercial-coach air fares from Washington to New York vary, but average about $220 each way. The Air Force estimates that the C-20Bjet costs $3,945 an hour to fly, a figure officials said includes maintenance, fuel and equipment expenses but not the salaries of the five-member crew.
Mrs. Sununu was not the only wife whose air fare was sponsored by the banquet organizers: Joanne Kemp, wife of Housing and jTC Urban Development secretary Jack F. Kemp, flew with the Sununus both to and from New York, HUD assistant press secretary Mary Brunette said last week. Mr. Kemp joined them only on the return flight, she said, because he had taken an earlier commercial flight to New York for other business.
HUD said Mrs. Kemp reimbursed the White House $420 for her flights. It could not be established why her reimbursement differed from that of Mrs. Sununu. Repeated attempts to discuss the trip with White House officials last week brought no response.
The reimbursement for Mrs. Kemp's flight was paid not by the Heuga Center but by a Connecticut ski-sports store, Sports & Co., which organized the dinner on the center's behalf, said store owner Michael W. Halstead.
Both Mr. Sununu and Mr. Kemp spoke during the dinner of cold grilled shrimp with tomato and jalapeno sauce, roast tenderloin of beef, fresh vegetables and dark star cake.
Mr. Halstead said that both Mr. Sununu and Mr. Kemp gave anec
dotal accounts of skiing experiences, with the chief of staff relating his governorship of New Hampshire to that of a proprietor of a ski area. They spoke also of President Bush's "thousand points of light" concept, in which each American contributes, through volunteerism.
The Sununus and Kemps arrived at the dinner within an hour of the start of the evening at 7 p.m. and left around 10:30 p.m., as the dancing began, Mr. Halstead said.
Hours before the dinner, Mr. Halstead said, Secret Service men with sniffer dogs inspected the dining room. He did not know whether the men were local or had flown with the chief of staff.
Mr. Halstead attended the dinner and said last week he believed the idea to invite the Sununus, and possibly also the Kemps, had come from California-based ski film cinematographer Kurt Miller.
Mr. Miller had recently taken over the film business from his father, Warren Miller, who is recognized as one of the ski world's top cinematographers. Knowing Mr. Sununu personally, Kurt Miller and his mother wanted the White House official to attend the function "as a personal thing" to honor his father's many years in the film and ski industry, Mr. Halstead explained.