WASHINGTON -- As controversy again swirled around White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu's travel arrangements, Mr. Sununu headed out of town yesterday, flying aboard a corporate airplane to attend an Iowa Republican Party fund-raising dinner, White House and Iowa Republican officials said.
The White House, meanwhile, said President Bush had "full confidence" in his chief of staff, and defended Mr. Sununu's use of private aircraft for personal and political trips.
"It's all fine according to the law, according to the rules and regulations," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
But, referring to the potential appearance of a conflict of interest raised by such flights, another White House official conceded, "Perception-wise, it doesn't look too good."
Neither Mr. Sununu nor a senior aide, Edward M. Rogers, who accompanied him to Iowa, returned a reporter's telephone calls. Mr. Fitzwater was said by an aide to have presented Mr. Sununu with a set of questions about his travel, but was given no answers.
Mr. Fitzwater said that in the approximately six weeks since theWhite House applied stricter scrutiny to Mr. Sununu's use of Air Force jets, the chief of staff has attended "three or four" political fund-raisers. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that in recent weeks the chief of staff had been soliciting free trips aboard jets provided by U.S. corporations.
Last week, Mr. Sununu returned to Washington aboard a chartered jet provided by the Beneficial Corp., a consumer credit company, after he attended a New York stamp auction and a New Jersey GOP fund-raiser. He had gone to New York in a chauffeured government limousine.
Yesterday, Mr. Sununu and Mr. Rogers flew to Des Moines aboard an airplane owned by Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc. for the Iowa Republican Party's annual Abraham Lincoln dinner, a $50-a-person fund-raising event, according to Tim Blaney, the stateparty's assistant finance director. Kirke-Van Orsdel is a 17-year-old insurance company that, according to a source active in Iowa politics, writes group insurance policies.
Its chairman, Gerald M. Kirke, has been active in Republican Party circles in recent years, the source said, and the company itself contributed $5,000 to the Republican National Committee before the 1990 elections.
"Their anchor," the source said of the company, has been the National Rifle Association, for whose members the company writes a variety of group insurance policies.
Mr. Blaney said the state party would reimburse Kirke-Van Orsdel the equivalent of a round-trip first class fare to Iowa for Mr. Sununu and Mr. Rogers, plus $1, adhering to what he said were Federal Election Commission regulations. Thus, the difference between the approximately $2,500 in fares and the several thousand dollars it would cost to fly the plane from Des Moines to Washington, fly the two to Des Moines and back to Washington, and then return the aircraft to Iowa, would be met by the insurance company.
Mr. Fitzwater said the office of White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray reviews use of corporate aircraft for conflict of interest.
"I'm certain they would take a look at what the corporation is and [its] business with the government, and so forth," the White House spokesman said.
"If you're invited to appear before a political fund-raiser or a political event of any kind that's paid for by a political candidate or organization or other sources, you can accept the ride on the airplane or whatever as long as it's paid for by the political entity," Mr. Fitzwater said.
"Similarly, the corporations are allowed to donate what's called 'in kind' services . . ."