Several Clinton aides rode helicopters

June 01, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun Contributing writer Nelson Schwartz provided information for this article.

WASHINGTON -- Clinton administration aides took 11 trips aboard presidential helicopters in the past 13 months in addition to the ill-fated golfing outing last Tuesday that cost White House aide David Watkins his job, according to records released yesterday by the White House.

According to White House officials, a review undertaken by Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III showed that the other trips were legitimate -- even an April 29, 1993, flight to Camp David by Mr. Watkins and another official for the stated purpose of "camp familiarization."

"That was his job," said White House communications director Mark Gearan, who said he did not know why Mr. Watkins didn't drive to the presidential retreat.

"There were no other instances of misuse," added White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Nevertheless, Mr. McLarty released a strict new directive to the White House senior staff and agency heads yesterday, requiring them to obtain written approval from either him or his two deputies, Philip Lader or Harold Ickes, before using military aircraft.

A summary of Marine Corps flight logs was compiled by Cheryl Mills, a lawyer in the White House counsel's office. The list did not include training missions with only military personnel aboard or trips in which President Clinton was a passenger.

Most of the trips appear to fit with the traditional uses for the aircraft. On May 12, for instance, members of the White House military communications office and an advance team took a helicopter to Norfolk, Va., to prepare for a visit by Mr. Clinton aboard the USS George Washington, the logs show.

On April 15, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, one of the few civilian officials authorized to use military aircraft, took a helicopter from the Pentagon to Williamsburg, Va. -- and the White House was reimbursed by the State Department.

The purpose of a few other trips, however, was not so clear.

On April 14, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and Deputy Budget Director Alice M. Rivlin traveled from the Pentagon to an unreported site. Asked for a justification, Barry Toiv, a spokesman for Ms. Rivlin, refused to comment, saying that even the destination was classified.

White House officials, preparing for Mr. Clinton's eight-day European trip, were clearly weary of the helicopter story and hopeful that the release of this information would put it behind them.

At least one critic, Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland, had other ideas.

Campaigning in Western Maryland, Mr. Bartlett -- one of those responsible for pressuring the White House on the helicopter trips -- relayed word that because of changing White House versions of what occurred on Mr. Watkins' golfing trip, he won't be satisfied until he sees the original records himself.

Yesterday, Mr. Watkins said that he will reimburse the $13,129.66 cost himself, rather than rely on help from other White House aides.

Mr. Watkins, 52, was forced to resign his $125,000-a-year job as chief of White House management and administration last Thursday, after the president was embarrassed by the publication of a photograph that showed Mr. Watkins about to board a presidential helicopter after playing golf at Holly Hills.

Mr. Clinton vowed that the taxpayers wouldn't pay "one red cent" because of the venture, but Mr. Watkins, who maintained that the trip was within the scope of his duties, initially balked at paying.

Mr. Watkins told The Sun yesterday that last week's golfing outing to Holly Hills was the only time he'd used presidential helicopters or transportation for any such leisure activity. He also continued to insist that the reasons originally cited by his office for taking the trip -- scouting out a course near Camp David for the president -- were valid.

"I'm sort of the resident golf guy in the White House," said Mr. Watkins, a longtime friend and Arkansas political ally of Mr. Clinton. "If there's a White House reception about golf, or some golf pro sends the president clubs or the P.G.A. [Professional Golf Association] commissioner needs a liaison, I'm the person. Tony Lake briefs him about national security. I brief him on golf."

Mr. Watkins said he thought his firing was overly harsh but said he departed on good terms with the president. "He was very sorrowful," Mr. Watkins said. "He said, 'I knew you wouldn't do anything wrong.' "

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