by Gary Martin and John Tedesco
EXPRESS-NEWS STAFF WRITERS
The White House defended itself Monday for waiting nearly a day to notify the public that Vice President Dick Cheney was involved in a weekend hunting accident in South Texas.
The Bush administration stood by its decision to let rancher Katharine Armstrong make the first public disclosure of a shooting that sent Austin lawyer Harry Whittington to a Corpus Christi hospital with shotgun wounds.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the first priority was to get medical treatment for Whittington, 78, and then determine the facts surrounding the shooting.
“The vice president agreed with Mrs. Armstrong that it was best that she provide that information publicly first,” McClellan told a White House news briefing Monday.
Bush administration officials came under fire for putting the release of the information about the shooting into the hands of a private citizen, and for not releasing an official statement from the White House.
Armstrong notified the Corpus Christi Caller-Times early Sunday about the shooting, which occurred a day earlier on Armstrong’s ranch, about 60 miles south of Corpus Christi.
Cheney’s party, which included Pamela Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, was hunting quail when the shooting occurred shortly after 5 p.m.
According to a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department incident report, Whittington had downed a bird and gone to retrieve it.
As he walked back, another covey was flushed. Cheney swung around and fired at a bird, hitting Whittington in the face, neck and chest, the report said.
Kenedy County sheriff’s deputies ruled the shooting an accident, Chief Deputy Gilbert San Miguel said. A police report is pending.
“This is a hunting accident. There was no alcohol, no misconduct on anyone’s part,” San Miguel told reporters at the Kenedy County Sheriff’s Department on Monday.
The Secret Service contacted Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas “shortly after the incident,” the sheriff’s office said.
There is no legal requirement in Texas to report hunting accidents.
The Texas Health and Safety Code requires that any health facility or physician who treats a gunshot wound is required to report it to legal authorities. The statute does not stipulate how quickly the report must be made.
Cheney and Whittington both received warning citations accusing them of violating state game laws.
While both possessed valid hunting licenses, neither had an Upland Game Bird Stamp, a requirement for hunting quail that went into effect in September.
Since this is the first year for the $7 stamp, violators receive only warnings, the Parks & Wildlife Department said.
Cheney fired a 28-gauge shotgun using shells with 71/2 shot, the incident report said.
Armstrong told other news organizations the vice president was not at fault, and she suggested Whittington should have announced his presence as he approached the other hunters from behind.
Armstrong was appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1999 by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
Gov. Rick Perry subsequently named her chairman. She resigned in 2003.
President Bush was notified about the shooting late Saturday by White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, McClellan said.
Later, after Rove spoke with Armstrong, Bush was told that Cheney was the shooter, McClellan said.
McClellan said the vice president visited Whittington at the hospital before leaving South Texas on Sunday.
Whittington is a longtime supporter of Republican politics in Texas.
“The vice president was pleased to see that he was doing well and in good spirits, and the president is as well,” McClellan said.
Whittington was out of intensive care and reported in stable condition at Christus Spohn Hospital. He has declined comment.
He was in good spirits on Monday, according to San Miguel, who said deputies spoke with Whittington as he recuperated from his wounds.
When asked about the long interval between the shooting and the time it was publicly disclosed, McClellan conceded that improvement could be made.
“You can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job,” McClellan told reporters.
McClellan attributed the delay, in part, to the fact the vice president was traveling without the press corps.
After Armstrong notified the Caller-Times, the newspaper received confirmation of the account from the vice president’s office in Washington and posted the story on the paper’s Web site Sunday afternoon.
The Caller-Times, in Monday’s editions, reported that Kenedy County sheriff’s deputies said they were not allowed to take statements about the incident until the day after the shooting.
San Miguel declined to comment on the delay in interviewing Cheney or other details surrounding the case.
“I really can’t say right now,” San Miguel said.
gmartin @ express-news.net