2nd helicopter was involved in golf outing for Clinton aides

May 28, 1994|By Karen Hosler and Michael James | Karen Hosler and Michael James,Sun Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- The White House reluctantly acknowledged last night that two presidential helicopters, not one, were involved in the golf outing Tuesday in Frederick County that resulted in the firing of a top Clinton administration official.

The acknowledgment came hours after Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, informed White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III that witnesses in the area of the Holly Hills Country Club near New Market had spotted more than one military helicopter.

David Watkins, director of management and administration for the White House, was forced to resign Thursday for using one of the presidential helicopters to golf at Holly Hills. Mr. Watkins took along Alphonso Maldon Jr., head of the White House military office, and Navy Cmdr. Richard E. Cellon, commanding officer at Camp David.

President Clinton acted swiftly to fire Mr. Watkins because use of the expensive helicopters on a purely personal outing was contrary to White House policy.

Last night, White House spokesman Mark D. Gearan first said that only one helicopter was involved and that the other one was on an "unrelated" training mission.

When pressed, though, he confirmed that a second helicopter also made the trip to Frederick from its Anacostia base near Washington to provide communications support for the first. During the golf game, the second helicopter flew around the Maryland-Pennsylvania border on what Mr. Gearan described as "training mission."

But Mr. Watkins will be asked to repay taxpayers for the cost of both helicopter trips, the spokesman said. The cost of operating one helicopter is $2,380 an hour.

The White House also released last night a list of more than a dozen senior White House aides who have agreed to chip in to help Mr. Watkins pay this cost.

They include Mr. McLarty, David E. Gergen, the counselor to the president; George Stephanopoulos, a senior adviser; Lloyd N. Cutler, the White House counsel; Robert E. Rubin, the President's economic adviser, and at least seven others.

The New York Times reported today that aides were scrambling to help pick up the tab because Mr. Watkins is balking at paying the cost of the trip. Mr. Gearan, who was among the senior aides agreeing to help out, characterized the donations as "a gesture of friendship," not a commentary on the propriety of the golf outing.

In his resignation letter to Mr. Clinton yesterday, Mr. Watkins seemed unrepentant and again said he made the trip to inspect the golf course for possible use by the president when he visits nearby Camp David. "My sole motivation was determining how you could utilize Camp David more frequently, and enjoy the same opportunity for exercise and relaxation in Maryland that you sometimes get in Washington," Mr. Watkins wrote. "There was no effort on my part to use White House or military equipment for personal or recreational purposes."

Mr. McLarty wrote in response that he accepted that Mr. Watkins felt he was acting "in good faith . . . Nevertheless, your use of the helicopter to land at a golf course where you proceeded to play a round of golf was an unfortunate error."

Mr. Bartlett, who brought the golf outing to light, said he called Mr. McLarty yesterday after hearing from witnesses that a second helicopter had been involved.

"We called McLarty to ask about the second helicopter" and to urge the White House to release records of its helicopter use, said Mr. Bartlett. "Several hours after our call, we got a call back. He said their records showed there was only one helicopter."

"I told him we had witnesses who were extremely credible," Mr. Bartlett said. "The response we got was that they were going to 'widen their inquiry.' "

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