WASHINGTON -- Top Bush administration officials took dozens of personal or political trips aboard military aircraft that cost the taxpayers three-quarters of a million dollars, but the government was repaid only $61,585, the General Accounting Office reported yesterday.
Meantime, another independent audit released yesterday found more private trips for which former Chief of Staff John H. Sununu used government vehicles without paying for them at all.
According to the GAO report, Cabinet-level members of the administration took 35 trips that were purely political or personal in nature. They reimbursed the government at the rate of coach airfare plus $1.
But those repayments accounted for only a small fraction of the true cost, which the GAO put at $774,330.
Officials whose travel government auditors examined included Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, HUD Secretary Jack F. Kemp, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., then-Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner and Mr. Sununu.
Mr. Sununu, fired last December as a result of the controversy that began with his travel practices, was forced to reimburse the government Monday an additional $4,242.80 for the use of chauffeured cars as well as military aircraft.
His total reimbursement for personal travel on the government tab,some of which Mr. Sununu still contends was official business, now amounts to $5,439.30, according to figures supplied by the White House and the GAO.
With a new, hotly political focus on government perquisites, the White House signaled yesterday a new willingness to cooperate with inquiries into presidential travel.
Mr. Baker took the lead in political damage control Friday, after a draft of the GAO report was leaked, by announcing that he would fly commercially on all personal trips in the future.
He also promised to reimburse the government $38,453 for 11 personal trips on military aircraft that GAO says cost the taxpayers $413,276.
The White House announced that the Marine Corps has been directed for the first time to tabulate and release the cost of operating the special helicopter unit that provides the presidential entourage with short-range travel all over the world.
The administration has also agreed to cooperate with a House Civil Service subcommittee that is seeking a total figure for presidential travel and further information related to the cost of White House personnel and operations.
"The conversation is better, at least," said Robert Hall, chief of staff for the subcommittee headed by Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. "We haven't really seen any information yet."
The GAO study, requested by Sen. David H. Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, examined Mr. Sununu's records from January 1989 to March of last year along with those of 10 Cabinet officials.
In that study, Secretary Baker, who like Mr. Sununu has been encouraged to use military planes for private purposes in order to stay in touch with the White House, ran up the highest tab, with Mr. Sununu a close second.
A separate review of Mr. Sununu's travel records by the independent Office of Government Ethics overruled many earlier conclusions drawn in an initial probe by White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray. Mr. Gray convinced the president last May to take away his chief of staff's carte blanche travel privileges, but said most of his trips could be justified by official purposes.