Official jet, ‘official’ trip? | AspenTimes.com

Official jet, ‘official’ trip?

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Thomas White once owned this fabulous multi story home at 331 Pfister near the Tiehack lifts on Buttermilk mountain. He sold the house earlier this month for a measly 6.5 million bucks. Paul Conrad photo.

Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White and his wife came to Aspen in March on what the Army says was official business, yet it appears one reason for the weekend trip was to finalize the sale of his home.

Secretary White, who is a former Enron executive, flew in an Army Gulfstream III jet from Washington to Dallas on Friday, March 1, for an Army ceremony.

He and his wife, Susan, then left Dallas for Aspen in the Army jet, but were diverted to Grand Junction’s Walker Field because of a snowstorm. Upon landing in Grand Junction, the Whites were driven to Aspen in government vehicles.

On Monday, March 4, White flew out of Aspen in the Army Gulfstream III en route to a Microsoft conference in Seattle.

The Army jet, with “United States of America” emblazoned on its side, was in Aspen at least one night before departing, according to an employee at the Aspen Airport who saw the plane.

Department of Defense policy requires that the secretary of the Army travel in military aircraft on official business, but that military officials “shall ensure that an official, rather than personal, purpose is served.”

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The military’s policy also states that “it is essential that managers and commanders at all levels prevent misuse of transportation resources as well as the perception of their misuse.”

White was expected in Aspen on March 1 to sign papers related to the sale of his Maroon Creek Club home for $6.5 million, said Bill Stirling, who served as White’s real estate agent in the deal.

“We were going to have a preclosing that afternoon at the title company, and I was notified by his office in Washington that he was going to come by land transportation,” Stirling said. “He was not able to get in on time, so he came to the title company on Monday morning and completed the closing.”

Stirling added that the Whites also had to visit the house on Monday to coordinate the shipping of a number of furnishings that were not included in the sale of the house.

The Whites bought their ski-in, ski-out house at the base of Buttermilk Ski Area for $7.8 million in October 2000 and put it on the market shortly after Enron filed for bankruptcy late last year.

The house is next door to a home owned by John Wing, also a former Enron senior executive. White also owns a luxury townhome at Aspen Highlands Village that is currently for sale.

According to Army General Larry Gottardi, who serves as White’s spokesman, White’s trip to Aspen was approved by Pentagon officials.

“His trip from start to finish, all legs of the trip and the means of transport he used between each, was reviewed and deemed appropriate by both Army and Department of Defense officials,” said Gottardi. “It was official business.”

When asked what official business brought White to Aspen, where there are no military installations, Gottardi replied: “I cannot discuss that. I can only give you assurance that it was reviewed for legality and it was approved.”

Gottardi refused to comment when asked if perhaps White was in Aspen for a weekend meeting with either government officials or corporate executives.

A Defense Department spokesman, Colonel Tim Blair, could not confirm that the Defense Department, as well as the Army, had signed off on White’s visit to Aspen.

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who is routinely notified for security reasons when high-ranking government officials visit Aspen, was not informed that Secretary White was here on official business from March 1 to March 4.

And officials at the Aspen Airport, who normally receive similar notifications, were not told who was on the Army’s Gulfstream III.

In regard to White’s wife, Susan, coming with him on the trip, it is Pentagon policy that relatives who accompany military officials on trips must reimburse the government for the cost of a commercial coach-class ticket.

According to an article in The Washington Post on March 23, Army officials said White was reimbursing the government for his wife’s travel but did not say how much he was paying.

Estimates of the cost of operating the Gulfstream jet White used range from $1,200 per hour to $6,000 per hour.

Stirling said that it was not uncommon to talk with White’s Pentagon office about the sale of his property.

“We have talked to his office periodically,” said Stirling. “We faxed almost everything to his private home, but we did talk to his secretary periodically to discuss an issue coming up with the deal.”

White’s trip to Aspen on an Army jet comes at a time when the former Enron executive is under close scrutiny by members of Congress regarding the timing of his sale of Enron stock and how forthcoming he has been with Congress about his ties to the company.

On the same day he flew to Aspen, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman and top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent White a letter saying they were not yet satisfied that he had fully divested his financial interests in Enron.

White, 58, a former brigadier general, was once vice chairman of Enron Energy Services and was a senior executive at Enron from 1990 to 2001.

White was appointed secretary of the Army by President Bush in May 2001 and now has responsibility for all matters relating to Army personnel, installations, weapons systems acquisition, communications and financial management, including the Army’s $82 billion budget.

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked at a press briefing about White being under investigation.

“When this thing first came up, I sat down, asked Secretary White to come in and visit, and I asked the deputy general counsel that was available to come and visit, and we discussed the kinds of problems that can occur in these kinds of investigations that are ongoing for Enron,” Rumsfeld said.