A senior administration official testified yesterday that President Reagan in 1982 personally approved a maritime proposal that was being pushed by former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger.
Craig L. Fuller, then assistant to the president for Cabinet affairs, said at Nofziger's conflict of interest trial that Vice President Bush also endorsed the plan to increase maritime employment at a March 1982 meeting with Jesse Calhoon, then president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA).
Fuller, now Bush's chief of staff, was called as a prosecution witness in federal district court here. One of the four felony counts against Nofziger centers on a note he sent top White House aides on Aug. 20, 1982, about the employment plan, while his lobbying firm was working for MEBA.
Prosecutors introduced evidence of Reagan's and Bush's involvement in an effort to show that the White House had a "direct and substantial interest" in the proposal to put civilian crews on noncombat ships traditionally manned by Navy and Coast Guard personnel.
Nofziger, who left the White House Jan. 22, 1982, has been accused of violating a provision of the Ethics in Government Act that prohibits former high-ranking government officials from lobbying at their old agencies for a one-year period on matters in which those agencies have a "direct and substantial interest." Nofziger's partner, Mark Bragg, was indicted on one count of aiding and abetting.
Fuller, who then worked under counselor to the president Edwin Meese III, said one of his tasks was to see to it that maritime policy questions were presented to the Cabinet Council on Commerce and Trade and, ultimately, to the president. Reagan had supported civilian manning of Navy ships in the 1980 campaign and, as Bush's staff was reminded in a March 1982 memo, had been "critical of the Carter administration for not doing anything about it."
Former secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr., who testified later in the day, said he, too, liked the idea of more civilian crews, already in use on some ships, but "very strong bureaucratic resistance" came from uniformed Navy careerists "who would rather have every ship under the discipline of the Navy."
MEBA's Calhoon hired the firm Nofziger & Bragg in February 1982 -- at $100,000 a year -- for help on the issue, according to MEBA documents. The union president, who Lehman said had "entree to the White House," met with Bush the next month to press for expanded civilian crews.
Fuller, who attended the session, said Bush "indicated he was fully supportive of the president's position on this."
A MEBA study proposing an additional 70 ships with civilian crews was presented to officials at an April 7, 1982, meeting at the White House called by Ed Harper, head of the president's Office of Policy Development.
"We are not here to discuss whether, but how, to implement the promise which President Reagan feels strongly is his personal commitment to the concept of contract-manning," Harper told the group.
Reagan approved "civilian manning" and other maritime initiatives at an Aug. 4, 1982, Cabinet Council meeting. Nofziger, however, complained in the Aug. 20, 1982, note to Meese, Meese's top deputy James Jenkins, and White House chief of staff James A. Baker III that nothing was being done "even though the president has asked that it be done."
The note was apparently taken up at one of Meese's daily management meetings. In any case, Fuller said he was asked in the fall of 1982 to make sure that "the Navy did make progress."
Lehman said the Navy eventually made great strides, but testified that this would have happened "whether MEBA existed or did not exist." Nevertheless, he said he had some conversations with White House officials, perhaps including one with Jenkins, that would not have taken place "had there not been concerns somewhere that there had been foot-dragging."
Defense attorneys, on cross-examination, sought to suggest that the issue was a very small blip on the White House radar screen, just one of what Fuller conceded must have been "several hundred" campaign promises.