The watchdog arm of the Marine Corps said Friday that it will review the use of military aircraft by the commander of the Marine Western air bases to determine whether a full-scale investigation is warranted, and officials on Capitol Hill said they, in turn, will keep close watch on that review.
"If (the Marine Corps' Inspector General's Office) gives this guy a scolding and not much more," said Jim Schweiter, counsel to the House Armed Services Committee, lawmakers may decide to open their own probe.
"I'm sure that there would be members who would be interested in something like this," Schweiter added. "Fraud, waste and abuse is something the committee is vigilant about."
Gen. Wayne T. Adams, meanwhile, remained unfazed by the controversy.
"The Marine Corps supports me," he said Friday after speaking with undisclosed military officials in Washington. "There's just no substance (to) any wrongdoing."
He added: "I'm just going to continue to work and do my job."
The issue surfaced Friday when The Times reported that Adams, the commander of the Marine Western air bases at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and Yuma, Ariz., had taken at least five flights that raised questions about his mix of military and personal aircraft use.
During a combination military inspection and vacation at Big Bear with his fiancee last October, for example, Adams ordered a C-12 Beechcraft to take him back to the El Toro base for a previously scheduled memorial service and then return him to Big Bear to finish his vacation.
En route to a military convention in Virginia last October, he stopped off in Florida during a tropical storm and signed his divorce papers. And in the course of accumulating flight time, he met his fiancee in Washington state and an old military buddy and golfing partner in Pennsylvania.
Col. Jim Williams, deputy inspector general of the Marine Corps, said in an interview: "We'll look at the issue in terms of the regulations that apply to determine if there are areas that need to be further pursued."
The colonel said he would not characterize this preliminary review as an investigation but said it could lead to one, depending on the findings. He would not give a timetable for the process or say what steps it would include.
While Marine officials described the review as routine, other military officials said there appeared to be deep concern about the disclosures--especially in the wake of a January investigation into two of Adams' aides.
"I know that folks at the highest level (of the Marine Corps) in D.C. have heard about this," said one military official in Southern California who has been involved in the flight-use issue and requested anonymity. "They're anxious to get it resolved."
Added another senior Marine officer in Camp Pendleton: "It's the subject of conversation big-time. It's had an effect around the office."
As part of the January investigation, Adams suspended his chief of staff, Col. Joseph E. Underwood, and an assistant chief of staff, Col. James E. Sabow, amid allegations of suspected misuse of military planes for personal reasons. Five days after his suspension, Sabow shot himself to death. In February, Underwood agreed to retire and pay a fine to avoid a court-martial and the loss of his pension.
Adams was never interviewed as part of the Inspector General's investigation into allegations against Sabow and Underwood, and some Marines interviewed as part of the probe said his name never came up during their interviews.
In a recent interview, Inspector General Hollis Davison said that Adams' own flight use was never probed because "there were no allegations against him."
Nonetheless, the high level of the inquiry directed some attention toward Adams. When Underwood and Sabow were given military lawyers as part of their investigations, a high-ranking defense attorney with the Marines, Lt. Col. J. L. Siegel of Camp Pendleton, said that if allegations should surface against Adams, she would represent the general herself, according to one source.
Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he agrees that the panel will watch the actions of the Inspector General's office closely.
"We have implicit trust in the IG, so I'll just hold my breath and see what he decides." While he would not comment directly on the disclosures, the congressman said: "It's utterly fascinating stuff."