- PUBLIC TRANSPORT: For the governor, it's State Police King Air.
Gov. Mike Huckabee has used the Arkansas State Police´s twin-engine plane to travel to and from destinations outside of the state more than 30 times during 2005, according to flight logs reviewed by the Arkansas Times.
Many of the trips took Huckabee to meetings and events that related to his position as chairman of the National Governors Association. Others have a more tenuous connection to his official duties.
For instance, Huckabee and his wife, Janet, flew to Washington, D.C., on the Beechcraft King Air 200 Oct. 28-30 to participate in the Marine Corps Marathon.
After the Arkansas Times began making inquiries about Huckabee’s use of the state-financed airplane, he issued a press release highlighting a $2 million education grant that Arkansas received from the Governors Association.
“On occasion, there are those who want to make an issue of the out-of-state travel requirements associated with my chairmanship of the NGA,” Huckabee said in the Oct. 12 release. “What you don’t often read or see is the direct benefits that accrue to our state as a result of my holding some of these positions.”
However, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article published two days later revealed that the grant was awarded before Huckabee became the NGA chairman and that a “committee independent of the NGA” decided who received the awards.
Among the reasons Huckabee may be sensitive to criticism regarding his use of the police plane is its expense: Using Huckabee’s Sept. 21-23 round trip to Andrews Air Force Base (outside Washington, D.C.) as an example, invoices provided by the State Police show fuel expenses totaling $1,962 and travel reimbursements for the two pilots (including pay for a non-salaried co-pilot) at $1,977, for a total of $3,939 — and that does not take into account the main pilot’s $32 per hour salaried rate or maintenance and depreciation costs. The State Police commissioned the King Air 200 into service in 1997.
Because the State Police could not provide a full accounting of those costs, the Times called Central Flying Service to determine the cost of such a trip on the open market. Central Flying charges $10,690 to charter its King Air 200 for the Little Rock-Andrews round-trip, with an additional cost of $35 per hour for each pilot’s on-the-ground waiting time.
Huckabee’s office refused to answer any of the Times’ questions about his travel, including how he decides which trips should be paid for by the state and which should be paid for with personal or political funds. His press secretary, Alice Stewart, said, “Whether we are talking in general or about specifics, when it is a matter of travel it is a security issue and we’re not going to comment.”
Huckabee sometimes travels on commercial airlines, which suggests that a private plane is not always necessary for security. On some trips in the state plane, Huckabee was not accompanied by security. Neither his office nor the State Police would tell the Times who determines whether the private plane is necessary and how that determination is made.
We addressed the following questions to Huckabee’s office and the State Police:
• Who determines whether Gov. Huckabee travels on the State Police plane or on a commercial airline?
• Is that decision based entirely on security considerations?
• What factors help determine whether it is more secure to travel on the State Police plane versus a commercial airline?
• Why was Gov. Huckabee not accompanied by a security detail on certain trips involving the State Police plane?
• Why does Gov. Huckabee always fly into Andrews Air Force base when he goes to the Washington, D.C., area?
• Why did Huckabee return to Little Rock from Greensboro, Ga., on Aug. 27 only to make a round trip to Greensboro the next day?
• Was it necessary to use the plane on Aug. 2 to fly to and from Memphis, Tenn., when it is only a two-hour drive from Little Rock?
• The State Police plane was sent from Little Rock on Aug. 27 to pick up Huckabee in New Hampshire, where he was exclusively engaged in campaign activities unrelated to his duties as governor. If it was safe for him to get to New Hampshire without the State Police plane, was it necessary or appropriate for him to be retrieved by it?
• Was flying to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Marine Corps Marathon considered official state business?
State Police spokesman Bill Sadler responded to the questions by saying, “It is our opinion that by answering these questions we would violate our own prohibition of discussing security operations associated with protecting the governor and first family. I hope you and your readers can appreciate that by making available the operational records of the Arkansas State Police Beechcraft King Air, this department has made an earnest attempt to be accountable to the taxpayers in the use of this aircraft. Likewise, we must also adhere to the statutory obligation of protecting the governor and by discussing the decision making process associated with his travels, we would compromise the integrity of that mission.”
The overall question is whether this is an efficient use of taxpayer money. The Arkansas State Police is supposed to provide security protection for the governor, but it is unclear how using a private plane is safer than traveling on commercial airlines — especially when Huckabee sometimes doesn’t have security officers along for the ride. Congressional leaders with security details, and even former presidents with Secret Service protection, often travel commercially.
If Huckabee is using the State Police plane for convenience, he would be taking advantage of the State Police budget for expenses unrelated to their security obligations.
Most of the trips have a questionable connection to Huckabee’s direct responsibilities as governor. His role in the Governors Association is not constitutionally mandated or sanctioned, so unless it is necessary for his personal security to use the State Police plane to travel to its meetings, the additional public expense is gratuitous.