Gov. Mike Huckabee will not discuss with the Arkansas Times his use of a state-owned airplane for out-of-state travel that has little or no connection with his official duties. He cites security considerations in his refusal to justify personal use of taxpayer equipment and State Police employees.
For example, Huckabee and three members of his family used the state-owned airplane in October to fly to and from Washington, D.C., so he and his wife, Janet, could participate in the Marine Corps marathon. Why did security considerations deem necessary the use of the plane (rather than a commercial airliner) for Huckabee’s travel to a place where he and his wife would run and walk 26.2 miles through the streets of a city with a high crime rate? The explanation, too, is protected by “security.” Or so the governor’s staff says.
Left to guess why Huckabee feels confident that he is acting within the law, the Times found an advisory opinion issued Oct. 16, 1997, by the Arkansas Ethics Commission in response to a question from Bud Cummins, who was Huckabee’s chief legal counsel at the time. Cummins asked, “Whether [Arkansas Code] requiring the Arkansas State Police (ASP) to provide security for the governor authorizes the use of state-owned vehicles or airplanes to transport the governor to and from any destination for any purpose when the ASP determines that use of such a conveyance will optimize security for the governor?”
The commission’s “brief response” was, “Yes. There are no statutory restrictions on the use of state-owned airplanes. Ark. Code Ann. § 19-4-2103 specifically permits the use of state-owned vehicles for personal or non-official business by state constitutional officers.”
Subsection 19-4-2103 was passed into law in 1991 — before the State Police owned an airplane — and has not been amended since. Its full text is:
“(a) No constitutional officer or employee of a constitutional officer shall expend for personal use any moneys appropriated by the General Assembly for the maintenance and operation of the office, and the moneys appropriated for the maintenance and operation of the offices of the constitutional officers shall be expended only for official state business.
(b) This subchapter does not apply to the purchase, maintenance, and operation of state-owned motor vehicles.”
In its 1997 opinion the Ethics Commission noted that “if the State Police determine that it is in the best interest of the security of the Governor to transport him in his plane, there are no statutory restrictions preventing the Governor’s use of the ASP plane, regardless of the nature of the journey.” However, there was an important caveat:
“That said, the Commission is not willing to opine that the ASP plane can be used by the Governor for any reason. In this regard, the Office of the Governor furnished the Commission with a set of voluntarily adopted internal policies that restrict the use of state-owned airplanes, to wit:
1. State airplanes do not transport the Governor on journeys that are solely political in nature.
2. State airplanes do not transport the Governor on journeys that are solely religious in nature.
3. State airplanes do not transport the Governor on non-official, out-of-state trips or for any personal trips solely related to outside business or investment activities.”
The part of Arkansas law most closely related to the subject was written before the state owned an airplane and therefore does not address it, allowing the governor’s office to utilize the plane without restriction as part of his security needs. However, neither the State Police nor Huckabee will discuss how those security needs are determined — even after travel is completed — so it is impossible to know why the airplane is so crucial for his personal safety.
In short, “security” seems to be a magic word that, when uttered, eliminates the need for the Huckabee administration to account for the expenditure of public money. Ask Huckabee how he justifies using the state-owned plane, and he cites “security” and refers additional questions to the State Police. Ask the State Police how they determine whether the plane is necessary for the governor’s security, and they cite “security.” Ask in retrospect why in a particular instance the plane was necessary for the governor’s security, and they cite “security.”
Most of Huckabee’s out-of-state travel on the state-owned airplane (as documented previously in the Times) is connected to his involvement in the National Governors Association and similar organizations, arguably related to his public office. However, in August the plane retrieved Huckabee in New Hampshire, where he was making political appearances before Republican groups. He did fly on from there to a governor’s meeting in another state so that Huckabee could perhaps argue this trip was not “exclusively” for political purposes.