Former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Ben Barnes said under oath today that he recommended George W. Bush for a pilot's slot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War at the behest of a Houston businessman close to the Bush family.
Testifying in a deposition for a lawsuit that has stirred up allegations of preferential treatment for Bush, now the governor of Texas seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Barnes said he relayed that information to a top Bush campaign official, Don Evans, more than a year ago.
In a statement issued after his deposition, Barnes said he assured Evans that neither Bush's father, former president George Bush, who was a Republican congressman from Houston when George W. entered the Guard in 1968, "nor any other member of the Bush family" asked Barnes for help.
Evans, now national finance chairman for Bush's presidential campaign, could not be reached for comment. But a spokesman said Evans sought Barnes out primarily to knock down a rumor that the senior Bush had solicited Barnes's help during an encounter at the Bluebonnet Bowl in December 1967. The spokesman, Dan Bartlett, said the rumor cropped up last year during Bush's campaign for a second term as governor.
Bartlett said Barnes assured Evans that no one in the Bush family asked him to help George W. get into the Guard but Barnes added that he might have gotten such a call from a Houston businessman.
According to Bartlett, Evans, who was Bush's gubernatorial campaign chairman last year, did not recall Barnes naming the businessman and did not mention this aspect of the conversation to Bush. Instead, Evans told the governor of Barnes's assurance that no one in the Bush family asked him for help.
George W. Bush wrote to Barnes on Sept. 9, 1998: "Dear Ben: Dan Evans reported your conversation. Thank you for your candor and for killing the rumor about you and dad ever discussing my status. Like you, he never remembered any conversation. I appreciate your help."
However tentative Barnes may have been with Evans, he was definite about it today. He said he was contacted by Sid Adger, a wealthy Houston businessman and a good friend of the senior Bush. Barnes said Adger asked him to "recommend George W. Bush for a pilot position with the Air National Guard" and Barnes did so in a call to Brig. Gen. James M. Rose, the top official in the Air Guard. Both Rose and Adger are dead.
George W. joined the Air Guard in May 1968, less than two weeks before his graduation from Yale. He has said he did not need help in getting into the Guard and did not ask for any. The issue has cropped up repeatedly in his political campaigns and has been raised again in a lawsuit brought by the former director of the Texas state lottery, Lawrence Littwin, who was fired by the State Lottery Commission in October 1997 after five months on the job.
The lawsuit contends that GTECH Corp.--which runs the state lottery and until February 1997 employed Barnes as a lobbyist--was responsible for Littwin's dismissal. Littwin has suggested in court filings that GTECH was allowed to keep the lottery contract that Littwin wanted to open up for bid in return for Barnes's silence about Bush's entry into the Guard.
Barnes, Bush and GTECH have called the theory preposterous. Littwin was not hired, or fired, until months after Barnes severed his relationship with GTECH.
Barnes's lawyer, Charles Burton, said Barnes's deposition cannot be made public because of a court-imposed confidentiality order, but the order "does not prevent him from setting the media record straight on events occurring more than 30 years ago."
CAPTION: George W. Bush sits in a fighter jet while in the Texas Air National Guard.