White House tightly limits Sununu travel Chief of staff made incorrect disclosure, expresses 'regret'

June 23, 1991|By David Johnston | David Johnston,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The White House has imposed strict new travel rules on John H. Sununu after an internal review found that the chief of staff misinformed Bush administration officials about who paid for his trip on a private jet to a recent Republican fund-raiser in Chicago.

The new rules, which were issued Friday evening, require Mr. Sununu to arrange his travel for political events through the White House Office of Administration, which will obtain transportation for him, White House officials said yesterday.

The office is under Mr. Sununu's authority as chief of staff, and White House officials said that the White House counsel would also review the plans before they were approved.

This latest and most aggressive effort to rein in Mr. Sununu touched off a new round of speculation among the president's political associates about Mr. Sununu's survival in office.

These associates believe that President Bush needs Mr. Sununu to help organize the 1992 campaign, but they now seem less certain than they were last week about the solidity of Mr. Sununu's position.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Sununu shifted from a defiant posture and struck a chastened tone, acknowledging that his travel habits had created the "appearance of impropriety" and expressing regret.

"Clearly no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety produced as a result of the events surrounding my recent travel," the statement said. "Obviously, some mistakes were made. Certainly, I regret that my own mistakes contributed to this controversy."

Mr. Sununu said that he himself had asked that travel procedures be clarified "in order to insure that there is no repetition of even the appearance of impropriety."

The latest rules, first reported in yesterday's Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, marked the third -- and potentially most damaging -- instance in which the chief of staff has been publicly rebuked over his travel habits.

Mr. Sununu was first chastised last month for his use of military aircraft for personal trips to a Colorado ski resort and to visit his dentist in Boston.

Last week, after Mr. Sununu used a government limousine to travel to a New York City stamp auction, Mr. Bush defended his chief of staff but said that his subordinate had created "an appearance problem."

Mr. Bush has been increasingly embarrassed and irritated by what one friend of the president's has described as the kind of "chintzy-looking" behavior that the president wants to avoid.

The new orders came after Mr. Sununu asked a Republican contributor to arrange travel aboard a private jet to a political fund-raising event in Chicago on June 11 without disclosing it to C. Boyden Gray, the White House legal counsel, as required under existing travel policies.

The White House said yesterday that the trip to a Republican Governors Association event was paid for by the contributor, Stuart Bernstein, a Washington real estate developer but that Mr. Sununu told Mr. Gray only about the identities of the aircraft's owners, who did not pay for the flight.

The Los Angeles Times, quoting lawyers familiar with federal ethics statutes, reported in today's editions that Mr. Sununu may have violated federal law as well as White House guidelines when he personally solicited free travel aboard the corporate jet.

The 1989 Ethics Reform Act, enacted with Mr. Bush's support, states that no federal employee shall "solicit or accept anything of value from a person seeking official action from, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by the individual's employing agency, or whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance . . . of the individual's official duties."

Congressional staff members who drafted this statute said Mr. Sununu's actions appeared to have violated that provision of the law, as well as a set of White House regulations issued to implement the law.

Under federal law, officials are permitted to accept rides on corporate aircraft for political or business trips provided that they do not solicit the trips themselves. In the case of political travel, the corporations must receive some reimbursement.

One White House official said yesterday that Mr. Sununu's description of his travel arrangements for the Chicago trip was "incomplete and inaccurate" and that the new procedures were designed "to avoid any appearance that a government official is putting the arm on somebody outside the government."

An internal White House report prepared Friday by Mr. Gray for use by Marlin Fitzwater, the presidential spokesman, portrayed Mr. Sununu's failure to disclose Mr. Bernstein's role as a mistake rather an intentional effort by the chief of staff to mislead White House lawyers, according to one official who has read it.

The report said that about June 7, Mr. Sununu, who had heard that Mr. Bernstein owned a plane, telephoned him to ask whether the aircraft would be available for the trip to Chicago.

Mr. Bernstein told Mr. Sununu that he no longer owned the plane but would find out whether it was available, the report said.

It said that Mr. Bernstein told a member of Mr. Sununu's scheduling staff that the plane was available and identified its owners as three prominent Washington businessmen, Howard Bender, Morton Bender and John Mason.

The chief of staff's schedulers gave Mr. Gray's office the names of the three owners, assuming that they were also paying for the trip.

Neither Mr. Sununu nor the White House counsel's office was aware that Mr. Bernstein had paid for the flight until sometime during the Chicago trip, the report said.

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