WASHINGTON -- The White House yesterday defended the legality of Chief of Staff John H. Sununu's use of corporate jets and government limousines for private purposes, but senior officials privately questioned his judgment.
As spokesmen attempted to quell the second storm in two months over Mr. Sununu's penchant for free travel, a tone of frustration was sounded elsewhere in the Bush White House because the chief of staff seemed to have a blind spot about the sensitivity of such behavior by an official in his position.
"What are you [press] guys going to get him on next -- bicycles?" mused one presidential aide, referring to Mr. Sununu's judgment in testing the limits of ethical standards.
The latest flap developed over reports that Mr. Sununu, whose unlimited use of military jets for private purposes was terminated by the president in early May, took a chauffeured government limousine to New York City for a stamp auction and returned to Washington aboard a corporate jet after attending a political fund-raiser in New Jersey.
Federal law provides such cars to a handful of top staff members, who are permitted to use them for "official purposes."
Mr. Sununu justified his use of the car on grounds that he needed to be in constant contact with the White House and that he was on the telephone with administration officials and House and Senate members during the trip.
For his return home, Mr. Sununu flew board a jet chartered for his use by the Beneficial Corp., a consumer credit company that also sponsored the fund-raising event.
The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Beneficial, which has a keen interest in banking legislation proposed by the Bush administration, is one of several corporations Mr. Sununu has solicited for free travel since President Bush restricted his aide's use of military planes for political and vacation travel.
"It's all fine, according to the law, according to the rules and regulations," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters.
"As I understand it, 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," he said.
"Similarly, the corporations are allowed to donate what's called in-kind services to that political group or entity or individual. And that donation can take the form of use of their private aircraft," the spokesman said.
The practice of accepting corporate-paid travel has become fairly common in the executive branch thanks to a provision in the 1989 Ethics Reform Act that was intended to defray taxpayer costs but also retain safeguards against conflicts of interest, said Dennis M. Devaney, a member of the National Labor Relations Board, one of many agencies that takes advantage of the benefit.
Unanswered was whether Mr. Sununu had met the test set by President Bush of being above even a question of impropriety.