Air Force nominee rejected Senate panel's tie vote blocks Jones from becoming service chief

Credibility questioned

July 23, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Daryl L. Jones' nomination to become the next Air Force secretary ended abruptly before a divided Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, with lawmakers saying he failed to adequately address charges swirling around his military flight record and business dealings.

The 9-to-9 vote came after two hours of often wrenching statements by senators and made Jones the first service secretary nominee in memory to fail before the committee. The tie vote meant the nomination could not go to the Senate floor for the required confirmation vote.

Jones, a 43-year-old Air Force Academy graduate, F-16 fighter pilot and Florida state senator, who would have been the first African-American to hold the Air Force's top civilian job, denied any wrongdoing.

While some committee opponents praised his record and personality, they said his credibility was in question. And they wondered if that would impede his stewardship of an Air Force trying desperately to retain pilots and operate in the budget-conscious and uncertain post-Cold-War world.

"I have no doubt he's a good and decent man," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former Navy aviator. "The question here is, is he capable of inspired leadership? I believe that this is the wrong candidate at the wrong time."

"The Air Force needs to have a leader of unassailable credibility," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican. "There are questions that remain about the nominee's judgment."

Only the committee's chairman, Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Republican from South Carolina, joined the eight Democrats in a motion to send the nomination to the floor without a recommendation. Two of the Democrats, Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, expressed doubts about Jones but preferred that the entire Senate be able to vote on the nomination.

President Clinton said he was "deeply disappointed" and

defended Jones as "a good, decent, able man.

"He was an outstanding candidate for this position, and he deserved the opportunity to be considered by the full Senate," Clinton said. "I thank Mr. Jones for his willingness to serve his country."

In a statement, Jones said, "Obviously, I am disappointed by the committee's vote." He thanked Clinton, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the committee members who supported him. Meeting briefly with reporters at the Pentagon, Jones said none of the objections raised against him "made logical sense to me." He said he would keep his reserve status and return to Florida to campaign for re-election to his state Senate seat.

"My constituents are very supportive. I hope I am welcomed back with open arms." He met a filing deadline there last week.

The acting secretary of the Air Force, F. Whitten Peters, has strong support within the service, said Richard L. Armitage, a former assistant secretary of defense. "From what I hear at the Air Force, [the nominee] ought to be Whit Peters," said Armitage.

Jones was nominated last October by Clinton, and questions about him surfaced almost immediately from fellow pilots in the 93rd Fighter Squadron, a reserve unit at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. They said he was a poor pilot who damaged jets while landing, once nearly ran out of gas and couldn't take criticism.

Last week, some of these pilots appeared before the committee and said Jones lied when he said he voluntarily stopped flying. A former superior, Col. Thomas Dyches, said he grounded Jones because of poor performance.

Other questions followed, including some concerning fees Jones received from a Florida bond firm. And there were allegations that he pressured enlisted men to buy the Amway household products that he sold.

Additionally, Jones was forced to correct statements he gave to senators. He said he had flown a career total of 2,000 hours, when in fact the number was 1,400 hours.

Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, an Idaho Republican, found the witnesses credible and Jones' shifting statements troubling: "I like the man, but there is serious doubt that has not been removed."

Jones' defenders said none of the allegations had been proved. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said the Securities and Exchange Commission is no longer investigating the bond deal and only one enlisted man made the Amway charges. Dyches and Jones simply have a "difference of recollection," Lieberman said.

Charges that Jones continued to collect an additional $88 per month in flight pay for four years after he stopped flying were due to an Air Force bookkeeping error, said Lieberman.

"It appears that something is there," the senator said. "But the closer you examine it, nothing is there."

"I do not believe that anyone has been able to prove that Mr. Jones knowingly sought to misrepresent his credentials, to defraud the government or to mislead the committee," said Thurmond.

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