WASHINGTON — Florida State Sen. Daryl Jones, President Clinton's nominee for secretary of the Air Force, fought to defend his reputation yesterday as former aviator colleagues testified that he had repeatedly lied to Congress during his first confirmation hearing.
Jones' former superior at Homestead Air Force Base told senators he had ordered Jones to stop flying; Jones said he stopped voluntarily. Another airman asserted that Jones had improperly used his rank to peddle Amway products, and a third contended that he so distrusted Jones, he retired from the Air Force once he learned of the nomination.
Jones, 43, remained calm, sitting erect and impassive during the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, as one panel of Air Force colleagues branded him a liar and a second group praised him as uniquely qualified to become the first African American to lead the Air Force.
He denied that he had sought to mislead senators or had broken Air Force rules.
``It takes years and years to build a reputation, and just a moment to tear it apart,'' said Jones, nominated in October to succeed Sheila Widnall, who resigned. ``If a reputation is something one can possess, then my most prized possession is my reputation.''
Sen. John W. Warner (R., Va.) a leading voice on defense issues, countered that the hearing was not a trial. But Warner confessed he was so troubled by discrepancies in Jones' accounts that he had ``taken this case to heart as seriously as anything I have ever done in the Senate.''
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R., Okla.) was more blunt. ``Mr. Jones has an insatiable appetite to say things that are not true,'' he said.
Despite the acrimony, the odds appeared slightly in Jones' favor as the committee chairman, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.), reiterated his support for the nominee, apparently creating a 10-8 majority if all Democrats back Jones. No confirmation vote has been scheduled.
Moreover, a number of prominent Air Force leaders spoke enthusiastically of Jones. His onetime superior in the Air Force Reserve, retired Brig. Gen. James Turner, praised Jones' efforts in the state Senate to keep the Homestead base open after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Another colleague at the base, Lt. Col. Thomas Sawner, said Jones so consistently won the award as best instructor from recruits that officers considered retiring the prize.
Both friends and critics portrayed Jones as an ambitious man who had been overextended with as many as four jobs at once: Air Force Reserve pilot, private attorney, investment banker and state senator. But while his backers said Jones managed the load brilliantly in the name of public service, his critics questioned whether he had taken shortcuts and been careless with the truth.
Critics homed in on several points:
* Did Jones lie when he told the committee in June that he had decided to stop flying fighter jets in 1991 voluntarily?