Bush's counsel revises screening of Sununu's travel after advice is ignored

June 23, 1991|By James Gerstenzang and Sara Fritz | James Gerstenzang and Sara Fritz,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Ignoring the advice of President Bush's counsel, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu personally solicited the use of a corporate jet for political travel after three proposed aircraft donors were rejected because of potential conflicts of interest, a senior White House official said Friday night.

Mr. Sununu's efforts to obtain use of the privately owned aircraft, coupled with his erroneous identification of the donor, prompted White House counsel C. Boyden Gray on Friday to revise the procedures used to screen the chief of staff's travel requests, the senior official said.

The disclosures were made as a growing number of top Bush administration officials, including Mr. Gray, Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher, are becoming increasingly embittered by the controversy surrounding Mr. Sununu, according to administration officials and other sources.

Because of the new disclosures involving aircraft use, the senior White House official said, Mr. Sununu "has been advised not to solicit any aircraft in the future." The official said Mr. Bush had been informed of the effort to establish "a better screening process."

The White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the latest development came when Mr. Gray and other White House officials discovered that the chief of staff had "called an old friend, Stuart Bernstein . . . and asked if he had an airplane he could use."

The plane, which Mr. Bernstein agreed to provide, carried Mr. Sununu to Chicago, where he spoke at a fund-raising event of the Republican Governors' Association, for which Mr. Sununu's wife works. Mr. Bernstein is a Washington real estate developer.

Mr. Sununu made the request June 10, the day before the speech, after Mr. Gray turned down requests to use planes offered by Archer Daniels Midland, an agribusiness company whose activities are heavily regulated by the federal government, and by two other companies, Textron and Ameritech, because their ties to the government also raised questions of potential conflicts of interest, the official said.

The official said that Mr. Bernstein told Mr. Sununu he no longer owned an airplane, but that three business associates, Howard Bender, Morton Bender and John Mason, did.

"Mr. Bernstein chartered the plane from them and made it available for Sununu to travel to Chicago," the official said, adding that Mr. Bernstein, Mrs. Sununu, and Edward M. Rogers, a Sununu aide, traveled with the chief of staff to Chicago.

Mr. Sununu then reported to Mr. Gray that the plane was being provided by the Benders, who are brothers, and Mr. Mason, rather than telling him it was Mr. Bernstein who was donating the aircraft, the official said. Howard Bender is a key figure in Blake Construction Co., which has built major government facilities in the Washington area and leases property to the government.

"Sununu and Rogers say they did not know Bernstein was the donor who paid for the airplane," the White House official said.

Although no government regulation prohibits the chief of staff from soliciting the donation of private aircraft for his personal use, procedures set up May 9 by Mr. Gray to govern Mr. Sununu's travel advised him against doing so.

Those procedures were established to screen Mr. Sununu's travel arrangements after it was disclosed that he had repeatedly used U.S. Air Force jets for personal and political travel, as well as for official trips, arguing that he needed the aircraft to remain in secure communication with Washington at all times.

"Boyden's problem is that it would have been better if Sununu had not done it himself, and he should have known who the real donor was," the official said.

Under the new policy, the White House office of administration, which comes under Mr. Sununu's purview, will handle the paper work of his travel requests, in an effort "to try to close some of the loopholes," another White House official said.

"What they're trying to do is just tighten it up so this will not happen again," the official added.

Gray was described by White House insiders as being "annoyed and irritated" at Sununu because of the erroneous identification.

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