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."

The most notable example of Jones's poor attitude, Estis and others say, was his response to a critical evaluation prepared in March 1990 by his commander, Maj. Thomas Dyches. According to service records obtained by New Times, Jones penned a three-page letter to Dyches's commanding officer rebutting each of the criticisms. In military culture such an action is almost unheard of, Estis notes.

Jones suggested he was being treated differently because he is black. He wrote that he believes "the standard required of Daryl Jones (perhaps unconsciously imposed) is much higher. I do not object to this. Such has been the case throughout my life. I was naive to expect any different treatment here."

The personnel file shows that Dyches responded with his own memo. "I was very concerned about what I perceived as a very thinly veiled accusation of racial discrimination, contained in the concluding remarks of his letter, and I told Daryl so," Dyches wrote. "I asked him if he really believed that my actions were based on racial prejudice. He was very evasive, and wouldn't give me a direct answer. I told him that I refused to be put on the defensive by such remarks, and that if he had the slightest doubt about my integrity as an instructor pilot, he should go directly to the [inspector general] and file a formal complaint. He said that he didn't think that would be called for. My opinion is that Daryl is trying to use the threat of a racial discrimination incident or action as a lever to get what he wants. He hopes to intimidate me and possibly others by having this threat hanging over my head."

As these records were made public, members of the Armed Services Committee have become increasingly wary of Jones's nomination. Some senators on the committee found it troubling that members of Jones's own flying unit were questioning his fitness for command. In January the committee asked the FBI to reopen its background investigation of Jones. This second review (the first was completed last summer) was concluded in February. The material -- which is confidential and included interviews with nearly everyone Jones flew with at Homestead -- was forwarded to the Senate.

In mid-February Jones told New Times his confirmation hearing was scheduled for February 25. But that was postponed because the senators wanted more time to review the second background report, according to DeCrosta, the committee spokesman.

Now the committee is waiting for information regarding the Dade County bond deal. "There has been more negative information about this nominee than most of the others we deal with," says one Republican staffer who asked not to be identified. The staffer adds that given these problems, there is no sense of urgency to schedule a hearing for Jones, who, if confirmed, would be the first black Secretary of the Air Force.

To avoid allegations of racism, opponents of Jones on the committee may decide to postpone his nomination indefinitely rather than publicly scrutinize his past during a confirmation hearing. "I think most members of the committee thought we would have dealt with Jones's nomination by now," says another staffer. "Now we don't know.

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