Secretary of Limbo

Daryl Jones thought he would be in Washington by now, overseeing a $62 billion budget and the welfare of more than 600,000 men and women in his new role as Secretary of the U.S. Air Force. Instead the state senator from South Dade finds himself back in Tallahassee for another legislative session, sponsoring bills on bridge maintenance and rabies vaccinations.

President Clinton tapped Jones nearly five months ago to take charge of the Air Force, but his nomination is currently stalled on Capitol Hill. In a joint letter to the White House, Sen. Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, the committee's ranking Democrat, informed the president that they would delay Jones's confirmation hearings until the FBI, which is responsible for conducting background investigations of nominees, had a chance to examine his role as a lobbyist in a $200 million Dade County bond issue. Jones's actions in that deal were first chronicled in a New Times cover story titled "Flying High" (February 26).

"The letter signed by Senators Thurmond and Levin requested that the administration report on the allegations made in your article," confirms John DeCrosta, a spokesman for the committee. "Once we get that information from the administration, the committee will then consider how to proceed."

The story detailed the county's selection of Douglas James Securities as an underwriter to sell $200 million in bonds to help finance expansion at Miami International Airport. The county's professional staff and financial advisers recommended against using Douglas James, arguing the small Miami Beach-based company had neither the experience nor the capital to guarantee successful completion of the deal.

Undaunted by county staff's opinion, Craig James, founder of the securities firm, last fall hired Jones to help persuade commissioners to award the deal to Douglas James. During an interview last month, Jones admitted that he was retained by James solely to lobby commissioners. "I'm a consultant," Jones declared. "I'm not an employee, I'm a consultant." He repeated the assertion several times.

The county commission eventually sided with Jones and selected Douglas James. The bonds were sold in October, and Douglas James earned nearly $300,000 in commissions, from which Jones was paid $90,000.

The episode raised several questions, the most important of which is the possibility that Jones's involvement may have violated state and federal rules governing bond transactions. Under those rules companies that hire consultants and lobbyists are required to disclose that fact. Douglas James never listed Jones on any of the required forms as a lobbyist or as a consultant. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has initiated a "review" of the transaction, and last month requested from the securities firm all files pertaining to the deal.

Another, more fundamental, question: Did Jones trade on his name and political office for his personal financial benefit -- at a time when he knew he was under consideration to become Secretary of the Air Force?

The article also included claims by two of Jones's fellow Tallahassee legislators that in 1996 he initiated a controversial piece of legislation that benefited a group of politically influential developers known as HABDI -- Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (Jones denies any involvement.) As Secretary of the Air Force, Jones would have considerable influence over the transfer of Homestead Air Force Base to the county for private development.

Jones will not comment on the letter sent to the president by Thurmond and Levin. The White House, however, says it is standing by Jones. "Daryl Jones remains the president's nominee," reports P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "It is not unusual for the committee to have questions as the nomination process moves forward. We will respond as quickly as we can."

In addition to affecting Jones, the delayed confirmation hearing is causing problems for local politicians. On the assumption that Jones would be easily confirmed, half a dozen candidates have announced their intention to run for the Senate seat Jones would vacate. (His district stretches from Key West to Kendall.) Principal contenders are state representatives John Cosgrove and Larcenia Bullard. As both of them would be forced to resign from the House to run for the Senate, candidates have been jockeying to fill those anticipated vacancies as well.

This is not the first time Jones's nomination has hit some turbulence. This past October the Washington Post reported that in 1991 Jones was forced to stop flying fighters as a reservist after his commander at Homestead Air Force Base expressed concern that he was compromising safety and was becoming a risk to himself and others. The newspaper also noted that in response to Jones being nominated, Maj. Alan Estis, who had served with Jones, resigned from his reserve unit in protest.

Initially the reports regarding Jones's flying record were dismissed by senators and others reviewing his nomination: His skills as a fighter pilot, they argued, were irrelevant when considering his potential to be a good Secretary of the Air Force. The ability to fly an airplane isn't even a requirement for the civilian administrative post.

In recent months, however, Estis and others have attempted to inform Washington officials that it wasn't Jones's poor flying that troubled them, but rather the lack of character he displayed when his flying abilities were questioned. Today Estis says he resigned because he did not feel comfortable serving under someone he did not respect. "I really had my doubts that he could represent me and the values that I think are important to the air force," he explains. "I love the air force. I've been a part of it for more than twenty years, and I felt I had to speak out about Jones out of a sense of loyalty to both the air force and my country. But I also felt it wasn't appropriate for me to criticize the president's nominee while I was still in uniform, so I resigned."

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