Flying High

Before heading off to Washington for confirmation as Secretary of the Air Force, State Sen. Daryl Jones got involved in one last bond deal. The money was very good, but the backwash could be very bad.

Add the constant threat of budget cuts and controversial base closings, the losing battle to keep trained pilots from leaving the service for better-paying jobs with civilian airlines, and a threatened war with Iraq and it is easy to understand why the position of U.S. Air Force secretary is taking on an added importance. If confirmed, Jones would be the first black to hold that post, as well as the first air force secretary to have served as a fighter pilot.

Supporters say the 42-year-old Jones is the ideal man for the job. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, and a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Jones served in the air force from 1977 to 1984, his last three years as a flight instructor at Homestead Air Force Base.

He liked Florida and decided to stay; he attended law school at the University of Miami and graduated with honors in 1987. After law school he joined the Air Force Reserve, flying F-16s out of Homestead and rising to the rank of major. But he found politics alluring and in 1990 managed to win a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. Two years later he was elected to the state Senate.

The only previous hint of controversy about his nomination surfaced this past October, when the Washington Post reported that Jones, in 1991, was forced to cease flying fighters as a reservist after his commander expressed concern that he was compromising safety and was becoming a risk to himself and others.

One of his superiors at the time, Col. Thomas Dyches, wrote that Jones had "a totally defensive attitude towards constructive criticism. He has an excuse for everything." Another of Jones's fellow flyers, Maj. Alan Estis, resigned from his reserve unit last year in protest over Jones's nomination as secretary. Estis said he did not want to be in the position of having to serve under Jones.

Also last October the Washington Times reported that in 1982, while stationed at Homestead, Jones allegedly tried to pressure servicemen on the base to buy Amway products. Maj. Tom Massey, a retired air force pilot, said enlisted personnel came to him and other officers complaining that Jones, then a captain and F-4 Phantom pilot, urged them to buy Amway's line of household and personal-care products from him and his wife.

Massey said the solicitations came during duty hours. The enlisted personnel "asked us to call him off," claimed Massey, who served in Jones's squadron. "That's what we tried to do and he acted like, 'I'm going to do it anyway.'" Jones, who admitted selling Amway products in the Eighties, denied to the paper he pressured anyone to buy anything. "Absolutely untrue," he said, adding that "it's a great business."

Jones has consistently received high marks for his work in the legislature, and was considered particularly effective in securing state and federal assistance to help rebuild his district after Hurricane Andrew. There have been controversies, however. Last year, for instance, he delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in opposition to a bill that would deny legal recognition to same-sex married partners. He noted that his district includes Monroe County and its sizable gay population in Key West. He spoke of the need for tolerance, understanding, and sympathy for gays and lesbians who have endured years of discrimination.

Then he voted in favor of the bill.
Jones has also been criticized by environmentalists for pushing the private development of Homestead Air Force Base and his support for a group of politically influential developers known as HABDI -- Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. HABDI critics note one incident in particular.

On the last day of the 1996 legislative session, an amendment was quietly attached to Senate Bill 660 that allowed Dade County to have its development plans for the air base reviewed under a special expedited process. This fast-track approach would reduce the time opponents would have to speak out against the project and would theoretically allow developers to begin construction sooner.

Dade County officials, however, were unaware the amendment was being introduced, as it was being orchestrated by HABDI's lobbyists in Tallahassee. In fact, county commissioners had voted not to take part in the expedited review and had allowed an application deadline to lapse. The amendment extended the deadline and gave HABDI executives another chance to find support among commissioners for a second vote on expedited review.

Who was responsible for that amendment? According to Senate records, it was introduced by Sen. Charles Bronson, a Republican from Kissimmee. In two separate interviews last month, Bronson said he added the amendment extending the deadline at the request of Daryl Jones. He explained that it was easy to accomplish because he was the sponsor of the bill, which dealt with business opportunities for closed military bases in central Florida.

"Senator Jones had told me about how bad things were down in Homestead following Hurricane Andrew, and he said the people there needed the business development as soon as possible," Bronson recalled. "He wanted to do something that would help the people down there, and that's why I didn't mind adding it to my bill."

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