‘You Can’t Fit Three Congressmen in an Ashtray, Even a $600 Ashtray’ : Politicians Scramble for the Limelight in Navy Supply Scandal

Times Staff Writer

In early June, Rep. Jim Bates provided news reporters with details of $660 ashtrays purchased at Miramar Naval Air Station because he felt that the Navy was taking credit for uncovering the exorbitant prices. “When I became aware that the Navy was trying to mislead the public . . . I decided to set the record straight,” Bates said.

A month later, Bates and Rep. Bill Lowery squared off publicly over other Navy purchases of trash cans and electronic kits. Lowery sent a letter to Bates criticizing him for engaging in “trial by headline” and making “sensationalized allegations.” Lowery then distributed his letter to reporters.

As the two San Diego congressmen grabbed headlines, Rep. Duncan Hunter’s staff suggested that he step into the Miramar controversy. Hunter declined, saying, “You can’t fit three congressmen in an ashtray, even a $600 ashtray,” aides recalled. But within weeks, Hunter stole the limelight on another Navy issue--the theft of sensitive aircraft parts off the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.

San Diego area congressmen have turned a summer filled with embarrassing supply scandals and procurement problems for the Navy into a publicity bonanza for themselves. They have amassed considerable nationwide coverage in newspapers and on television news programs by holding press conferences, issuing news releases, granting exclusive interviews and strategically leaking information to the press.

Their actions undoubtedly have disclosed military problems that otherwise might have gone unreported. In some cases, they have pressured top Navy and Defense Department officials to take action, such as the firing of three officers in response to the ashtray purchases. And two congressional hearings are now scheduled to investigate Navy problems. But at times the politicians have stumbled and bumped into each other as they compete for publicity.


On June 14, for example, Bates disclosed that he had information that the Navy paid more than $697,000 for aircraft electronic modification kits that should have cost $67,000. The false allegation was based on shipping documents, not the actual invoices. Bates later admitted that he erred, but said the Navy system should not have allowed the price listed on the shipping documents to pass through without question.

While all but one San Diego area congressmen have generated publicity out of recent Navy problems, each has mapped his own strategy to attract attention. The result has been an unusual amount of jockeying, struggle and conflict among the legislators:

- During a July 11 congressional hearing, Bates, a San Diego Democrat, made front-page headlines in The Times when he said that a Navy informant had supplied him with documents detailing repeated cases of theft, fraud and waste aboard the Kitty Hawk. Aides to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Hunter later called the whistle blower’s attorney to find out why he had not contacted their offices first. The whistle blower, Robert Jackson, says he did go to Wilson’s office first.

- Four days after federal authorities announced that they had arrested a Kitty Hawk sailor, a civilian warehouse employee at North Island Naval Air Station and two others for operating a smuggling ring that allegedly shipped stolen F-14 aircraft parts to Iran, Hunter announced that the House sea power subcommittee might investigate the case. Another four days later--on July 23--Wilson issued a press release announcing that his Senate armed services subcommittee would examine criminal activities aboard the Kitty Hawk. On Aug. 1, Hunter, a Coronado Republican, followed up by introducing legislation calling for life sentences for persons convicted of sending stolen military property to foreign governments.

- On July 27, Wilson was quoted in a front-page San Diego Union story as saying that he had learned from Navy auditors that $14 million in spare parts could not be accounted for on the Kitty Hawk. The article outraged Bates, who said that Navy officials had furnished him the same information in a similar briefing but requested that he keep the figures secret. Bates provided The Times with a copy of a July 31 memo he sent to Capt. E.M. Straw demanding to know why Wilson was permitted to release details to the media. (Navy officials now decline to stand behind the $14-million figure and say they will make new numbers available pending a complete investigation.)

- For several weeks, Lowery, a San Diego Republican, has repeatedly demanded that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. make public an investigative report that upheld the firings of two officers and reprimanded another at Miramar for their roles in purchasing the expensive ashtrays. Lowery said he has received information that the investigation cleared the officers, but that high-ranking military officials upheld the firings to save face. “We’ve been very unsatisfied with the lack of response from the secretary of defense and will continue to push,” Lowery said Thursday.

But while Lowery continues to press for the report and make headlines, Wilson has already been briefed by Weinberger and been given access to the full investigative report. Wilson said he is now satisfied that the three officers were not made scapegoats.

- A Miramar clerk said she went to Lowery three years ago with examples of $596 ashtray purchases. After receiving no response, she gave the purchase orders to Hunter’s office in April. Hunter received a formal response from the Navy defending the purchases. It was not until the clerk, Verna Millard, brought the evidence to Bates that the ashtray purchases were publicized, in May, and the Navy began taking the charges seriously.

Rep. Ron Packard, an Oceanside Republican, is the only member of the San Diego congressional delegation who has sat quietly on the sidelines while his colleagues continue to appear in the media. Packard said his House science and technology subcommittee is looking at ways to restructure the military’s procurement system within.

“My interest has been in the larger picture rather than looking at specific incidences of a problem,” Packard said. “My tendency is to not cast guilt until I know all the facts and the whole story is out. I think some hasty decisions were made (on the part of other San Diego congressmen). A little bit of caution would have been in order.”

Lowery has put himself in the difficult position of defending the officers who were fired at Miramar and not publicly criticizing the Navy for its supply and procurement abuses, but at the same time calling for reforms.

“I do not defend waste, fraud or abuse in the Department of the Navy or any other agency of government,” Lowery said. “I was satisfied in the case of the Kitty Hawk that when violations of law or abuses were called to the Navy’s attention, they jumped on it and jumped on it well before it made any headlines in any paper.”

Wilson said he is waiting for the Naval Investigative Service and the U.S. attorney’s office to finish their investigations of the stolen F-14 parts case before he holds his Senate subcommittee hearings.

The undisputed publicity king in recent months has been Bates, who has received so much attention that his colleagues criticize him for grandstanding, according to interviews with congressional sources. Bates, who does not sit on a House armed services committee or subcommittee, has positioned himself at the center of Navy controversies by appearing as a special witness at congressional hearings and assembling an impressive list of Navy informants.

As a result, Bates has appeared everywhere--on front pages in newspapers, on television and radio broadcasts, in Navy newsletters and in Time, Newsweek and People magazines. Bates first made headlines by taking the Navy to task for the ashtray purchases at Miramar, even though the Navy installation is in Lowery’s district.

“It seemed that every other day new charges more flamboyant than the previous day were occurring,” Lowery said in explaining his letter scolding Bates for taking charges to the media. “I guess if I were sensationalistic I could have beat up on the Navy. I didn’t see fit to do that. The FBI and various investigative agencies in the Navy were on top of things.”

Bates also kept Hunter’s aides in the dark about allegations of theft and fraud aboard the Kitty Hawk, which is berthed in Hunter’s district.

Hunter was unavailable for comment this week because of a family illness. Hunter’s administrative assistant in Washington, John Palafoutas, said, “We knew there was trouble, but Bates had all the hard facts. He basically controlled the whole situation. He had a couple of options. One was to go privately to the Navy and ask for an investigation. The other was to get a big press splash, which he chose to do. At that point, we saw what was going on, and we made a request to the sea power subcommittee to have hearings.”

Bates said he thought “long and hard” about the political risks of challenging the military in a Navy town before he unleashed numerous allegations of waste and expensive purchases.

“In politics, many times issues are emotional rather than intellectual,” Bates said. “With the emotional attachment to the Navy, constituents might feel that maybe those things are wrong, but it’s our Navy, our town, our people . . . and so politically they might say they’re upset. I think that’s not the case. I think many people in the Navy recognize that there is a problem and it needs to be dealt with.”

While Bates has accumulated the most ink, he hasn’t gotten very far in working with the Navy to initiate substantive reforms in the areas of procurement and supply systems, congressional sources told The Times.

“We don’t believe in Navy bashing for the hell of it,” said Otto Bos, head of Wilson’s San Diego office. “We don’t make it a habit of shouting before we know all the details. That’s not our style. Frankly, we’re more interested in results than publicity.”

Navy officials privately attack Bates for taking his allegations to the media instead of allowing naval investigators to evaluate the charges.

For the record, however, the chief of naval operations, Adm. James D. Watkins, lauded Bates in an interview with the editorial board of the San Diego Union and Tribune. “Bates is listening to people who tried to get their message through the system and couldn’t,” Watkins said.

Bates said he gave Navy officials a year to respond before he decided to go public with charges.

“I think it is beneficial that the public does know about it,” Bates said. “Unless there is a good reason why something should be kept confidential, I don’t think that all of this should be done in secret. This is the business of the public.”

Bates said he finds it “ironic” that other congressmen are taking shots at him for exposing the Navy’s troubles in the media and at the same time seeking publicity.

“They can second-guess me and criticize me, but they’re attempting to get coverage on this issue because they know it’s a problem,” Bates said. “I think it is a compliment that they are now becoming interested. I haven’t seen them doing anything up to this point to deal with the problem.”

Bates also said that the same San Diego congressmen who complain about his role neglected to investigate allegations that they were given by informants who later came to Bates.

Millard, the clerk in the Navy receipt processing branch at Miramar, said that three years ago at a town hall meeting in Poway she presented Lowery with photos of aircraft ashtrays and invoices revealing that two of the items were purchased at $596 apiece.

Both Lowery and his administrative assistant, Dan Greenblat, said that they could not recall Millard. They said they reviewed a three-hour videotape of the session and did not see Millard. “I’m convinced if there had been any information we would have had a record and acted on it,” Greenblat said.

Millard said she chatted briefly with Lowery after the meeting. She provided The Times with a letter dated Aug. 23, 1982, on congressional stationary signed by Lowery. In the form letter, Lowery thanked Millard for her comments and added, “I certainly hope you will continue to keep me informed by contacting me at any time.”

Millard said she waited a month before contacting Lowery’s office by telephone and never got a response. Millard, who retired in January, submitted similar documents to Hunter’s office in late April that showed recent ashtray purchases for $650 apiece. Hunter sent the information to Weinberger and waited for a reply, which did not come until July 30, when a Navy official defended the purchase.

Meanwhile, at the urging of a friend, Millard sent the same material to Bates one week after providing it to Hunter. A month later, reports about the overpriced ashtrays appeared in newspapers. Bates was quoted extensively in many of the stories.

“Bates did the only thing that could be done to get their attention because this has been going on for years,” Millard said. “I called the Navy hot line in Washington at least a dozen times, and the Navy did nothing. I feel vindicated.”

Former Navy financial auditor Robert Jackson said he initially took his complaints of waste and fraud aboard the Kitty Hawk to Wilson’s office after his Navy superiors showed no interest. Jackson said he left his name and phone number in a recorded telephone message at Wilson’s San Diego office on May 22 or 23. He said he identified himself as an internal auditor on an aircraft carrier and wanted to set up a meeting to tell officials about possible criminal activity.

Wilson said he was not aware that Jackson tried to contact his office. Bos said that Wilson’s office has no record of receiving a call from Jackson. He said that Wilson’s San Diego office receives 325 calls a day.

Jackson then went to Bates.

“When Jim Bates had no idea who I really was, he stuck his head out,” Jackson said. “He went to Congress and he blew the whole thing open. It could have been very embarrassing to Bates. I have to think very highly of him.”

Jackson’s San Diego attorney, Randy Whaley, said, “No one jumped on the bandwagon until Bates came up with solid information. Then they figured it was safe to go against the Navy.”