WASHINGTON -- Ever since the White House cut back on John H. Sununu's use of military aircraft for leisure and political travel, the controversial chief of staff has been soliciting free trips aboard jets provided by American corporations, White House officials said yesterday.
In the latest instance, Beneficial Corp., a consumer credit company headquartered in Peapack, N.J., provided a chartered jet for Mr. Sununu to return to Washington from a New York stamp auction and a New Jersey GOP fund-raiser Wednesday night.
Officials said that other corporations were being asked to do likewisewhenever Mr. Sununu makes similar trips.
Mr. Sununu himself pays nothing for these corporate flights, which are perfectly legal. Officials of Beneficial said they expect to receive only partial reimbursement from the New Jersey Republican Party for Mr. Sununu's flight last week.
In turning to corporations, Mr. Sununu is one of a growing number of top administration officials who have come to rely on American business to provide air travel for trips that previously would have been funded by the government or themselves. Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher Sr. has taken more than 30 trips on planes provided by corporations since he took office 2 1/2 years ago.
Although others have been criticized for accepting flights on corporate jets, officials said that Mr. Sununu sees no potential conflict of interest in accepting travel accommodations from corporations, even those with intense interest in changing government policies.
Beneficial, for example, has battled banking industry reforms proposed by the Bush administration.
Mr. Sununu has said that he must rely on corporate jets in order to remain in constant touch with the White House. "I have to be able to communicate, to work on sensitive papers, to coordinate the White House activities, even while I'm traveling," he said Sunday.
But Representative Barney Frank, D-Mass., after he was told of Mr. Sununu's flight at the expense of Beneficial, said, "I think it's a mistake; that's why you have conflict-of-interest laws." Mr. Frank added, "What would be so terrible about flying in a regular plane like a normal person?"
White House officials said that Mr. Sununu was unlikely to be swayed by such criticism. "Sununu doesn't play by your rules, or our rules, or Washington rules," one official said. "He plays by his rules and he's not going to change."
Until recently, it was illegal for top administration officials to acceptfree travel from American corporations. But the law was changed to permit such trips at the request of President Bush as part of the so-called Ethics Reform Act, enacted in late 1989.
White House officials said that Mr. Sununu began soliciting flights from corporations shortly after Mr. Bush imposed a new White House travel policy May 9 that barred him from using military aircraft for all political and most personal trips. Under the previous policy, Mr. Sununu had used military aircraft to take a ski vacation and visit his dentist in New Hampshire.
Although the officials said that Beneficial is not the only corporation that has provided transportation for the chief of staff since his use of military aircraft was cut back, they declined to identify the other companies that have also done so.
Beneficial spokesman Bob Wade said his company initially was asked to provide a round-trip chartered flight for Mr. Sununu to attend the New Jersey GOP fund-raiser Wednesday night. The event was held at Beneficial-owned Hamilton Farm, in Bedminster, N.J.
After the company chartered an aircraft for Mr. Sununu, Mr. Wade said, White House officials informed the company that he would be traveling home to Washington aboard the aircraft but would not be using it to go to New Jersey.
Instead, Mr. Sununu traveled in a government-provided limousine to New York and then to Bedminster.