Cheney Hunting Accident: No End to Questions

By Anne E. Kornblut and Ralph Blumenthal

The White House sought to explain why it took most of a day to disclose that the vice president accidentally shot a fellow hunter.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 - The White House sought with little success on Monday to quell an uproar over why it took the better part of a day to disclose that Vice President Dick Cheney had accidentally wounded a fellow hunter in Texas on Saturday and why even President Bush initially got an incomplete report on the shooting.

The victim, Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old lawyer, was transferred from the intensive care unit to a private room in a Corpus Christi hospital on Monday. He was listed as stable, with wounds to his face, neck, chest and rib cage from the pellets sprayed at him from 30 yards away by Mr. Cheney's shotgun.

Calls to Mr. Whittington's room were routed to the hospital's marketing department, which said it was taking messages for him, but he did not return a call.

Texas officials said on Monday night that Mr. Cheney would be issued a warning citation for hunting without a proper game stamp on his license. The local sheriff said an investigation had concluded that the episode was "no more than an accident."

At the White House, Mr. Cheney made no statement on Monday and remained out of public view. At the beginning of a meeting with Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations, Mr. Bush laughingly told Mr. Cheney that reporters would later enter the room; the vice president left before the journalists arrived.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, was battered at his daily news briefing by journalists demanding answers to why Mr. Cheney had not been faster to make public what happened and why he had chosen a local newspaper in Texas as his vehicle for doing so.

The pressure came in part from questions about whether Mr. Cheney - who is already known for his inclination to keep his business, professional and political dealings behind closed doors - might have been trying to play down the incident, a suggestion rejected by those who were with Mr. Cheney over the weekend.

Among the people with him at the Armstrong Ranch in South Texas was his host Katharine Armstrong, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Mr. Cheney. Her lobbying clients include several that do business with the federal government, though Ms. Armstrong said she did not believe that she had ever lobbied Mr. Cheney.

In an interview, Ms. Armstrong said that it did not occur to anyone in the hunting party to make news of the shooting public immediately, but that no one, including Mr. Cheney, had called for holding it back. She said Mr. Cheney participated in discussions on Sunday morning about disclosing the incident, agreeing that it should be made public but deferring to the Armstrong family on how to do so.

On Sunday morning, Ms. Armstrong tipped off her local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, to the story. It was later picked up by national wire services and confirmed by Mr. Cheney's office.

The incident provided a wealth of material for Democrats, gun control activists and critics of the Bush administration, not to mention late-night comedians.

Mr. McClellan struggled at times to explain even the most basic details in the case, including when and how Mr. Bush was informed about it.

In the end, White House officials said Mr. Bush learned about the shooting accident at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, about an hour after it happened, in a call from Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff. But Mr. Bush did not find out that Mr. Cheney fired the shot until about half an hour later in a subsequent call from Karl Rove, his senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, who had called Ms. Armstrong to ask about the incident.

The local sheriff, Ramon Salinas III of Kenedy County, said the Secret Service called him shortly after the shooting occurred.

Sheriff Salinas said he sent his chief deputy, Gilbert Sanmiguel, to the Armstrong Ranch that night. He said Mr. Sanmiguel interviewed Mr. Cheney and reported that the shooting was an accident.

The sheriff said Sunday that they had yet to speak to "the victim." "But you could say it's closed," Mr. Salinas said of the case.

On Monday, a news release from the sheriff's office said that "Mr. Whittington's interview collaborated Vice President Cheney's statement" and that the department was "fully satisfied that this was no more than a hunting accident."

There is no requirement to report nonfatal hunting accidents in Texas, said Lydia Saldana, the communications director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In a statement on Monday night, Mr. Cheney's office said a member of his staff had asked the Parks and Wildlife Department for all of the necessary permits for the vice president to go quail hunting in Texas and had paid $140. But, the statement said, the staff member was not informed of the need for an additional stamp, costing $7, to allow hunting of upland game birds.

It said Mr. Cheney has now sent a $7 check to the department.

Mr. Cheney has often gone hunting as vice president, sometimes with other prominent officials, including Justice Antonin Scalia. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Mr. Cheney mocked Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, for having worn camouflage on a duck-hunting trip, saying Mr. Kerry's "new camo jacket is an October disguise, an effort he's making to hide the fact that he votes against gun-owner rights at every turn."

This past weekend brought Mr. Cheney together with a group of old friends, friends of friends and political supporters in the kind of private setting he relishes. The guests included Pamela Pitzer Willeford, a Texan who was appointed ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in 2003. She was with Mr. Cheney at the time of the shooting, as was Ms. Armstrong, whose mother, Anne, is a prominent Republican supporter and whose family ranch is a familiar destination for Republican politicians.

According to Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog organization, Ms. Armstrong first registered as a lobbyist in 2003. She registered in 2004 as a lobbyist for Parsons, an engineering and construction firm that has done extensive work in Iraq, and listed the contract size at more than $100,000, according to lobbying records from the Texas Ethics Commission provided by Texans for Public Justice.

Ms. Armstrong's business partner, Karen Johnson, spent several years lobbying for Parsons, including procuring contracts with the State Department, the Department of Transportation and the United States Agency for International Development, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks federal lobbying. Ms. Johnson also lobbies for major corporations, including Lockheed Martin, and has been one of Mr. Bush's leading fund-raisers.

Ms. Armstrong has a relatively limited list of lobbying clients in Texas and in Washington. Public records show that she has worked for Baker Botts, the law firm; Prionics AG, a biotechnology company; Trajen, a firm that performs aviation technical support for the United States military; and the King Ranch, the property next to her family's ranch.

Records in Texas indicate that she has lobbied at the state level for three companies: Avex Group, the Dannenbaum Engineering Corporation and Ecocreto USA.

Ms. Armstrong played down her role as a lobbyist and suggested that she had not brought up business during Mr. Cheney's visit. She was appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1999 by Mr. Bush, who was then the Texas governor.

"You need to understand that the Cheneys are our friends maybe for a couple of decades, maybe 30 years," Ms. Armstrong said, adding that she did not personally represent Parsons. "I represent a couple of Texas companies, not a large lobbying practice," she said.

Ms. Armstrong said she did more public relations and consulting work than lobbying, but she declined to disclose her clients. She said none were involved in Iraq "that I know of."

Asked if she was concerned that Mr. Cheney's visit could create the appearance of impropriety during the lobbying investigation involving Jack Abramoff, which has brought to light the often close personal and professional ties between lobbyists and public officials, Ms. Armstrong said: "Oh my God, he's a friend. I don't believe I've ever lobbied the vice president, nor would I be comfortable doing so."

Ms. Armstrong and Ms. Willeford said the accident was largely the fault of Mr. Whittington, who had reappeared alongside two of his hunting companions without giving proper warning. Mr. Cheney, who was carrying a 28-gauge shotgun, had already begun to fire and sprayed Mr. Whittington.

"He got peppered pretty good," Ms. Armstrong said. "He fell with his head toward me." She said she ran over to Mr. Whittington, who had fallen, but stayed out of the way while Secret Service agents tended to him.

"There was some bleeding, but it wasn't horrible," she said. "He was more bruised."

Ms. Willeford, whose husband was also at the ranch, said in an interview after visiting the victim at the hospital that Mr. Whittington accepted responsibility for the accident. "He understands that he could have handled it better," Ms. Willeford said. "Harry should have let us know he was back there."

Anne E. Kornblut reported from Washington for this article, and Ralph Blumenthal from Houston.

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