When the Arkansas State Police and the Governor's Office asked lawmakers for $1.4 million to buy a King Air airplane early this year, they argued that the plane was needed for law enforcement purposes.
Turns out, the plane has had more use as an executive aircraft, particularly for Gov. Mike Huckabee.
It had been said, among other justification for the purchase, that it would be easier to move SWAT teams into place or move personnel to prison riots with the grand new plan.
But the leading user of the King Air, which can carry eight passengers in addition to a crew of two, has been Governor Huckabee. Huckabee has logged approximately 96 hours, to more than 40 cities, from December 1996 (when the plane was leased) to mid-September.
The State Police logged 74 hours during the same period. Of those, only 12 1/2 hours were directly connected to criminal investigations--mostly transporting witnesses and personnel to meetings.
Other agencies that've used the plane this year include the state Crime Lab, the state Employment Security Division, the Department of Correction, the Pope County sheriff's office and the Mena prosecuting attorney's office. Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller has used the King Air twice, once with Secretary of State Sharon Priest and state Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher.
The State Police are responsible for transporting the governor, by car or plane. Requests for the plane are made to Sgt. John Sparks, State Police aircraft section commander and pilot. He decides the users based on destination, cost, weather and competing law enforcement needs. State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said law enforcement needs take top priority.
Rex Nelson, a spokesman for Huckabee, said the need for the plane wasn't "misrepresented" at the time the legislature considered its purchase; it was clear, to lawmakers at least, that the state's top executive needs a plane to travel Arkansas. Coincidentally, an airplane allows a governor maximum exposure in minimum time, a considerable benefit to facing an election in the coming year.
State Sen. Morril Harriman of Van Buren backs the governor's office. He said he recalls there was "openness between the executive and legislative branch" in discussions about the plane. "The executive branch did make a determination ... they wanted the plane to have a dual role, and wanted it in State Police, not just for gubernatorial duties but State Police duties."
State police spokesmen said the Queen Air used by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (and Huckabee, who as lieutenant governor used the plane more than any of his predecessors) was no longer safe or suitable.
Jim Harris, also speaking for the governor, said the office was "trying to keep [use of the plane] extremely separate from campaign activities." Huckabee used private charters, paid for out of campaign funds, to fly to North Arkansas fund-raisers in August and September; the Christian Coalition paid for his flight to its Atlanta gathering in September.
Huckabee's travel peaked in April, when he visited 16 cities. Nelson said governor was catching up, clearing a "backlog from the legislative session."
The governor also used the plane to travel to Branson, Mo., in April but Nelson said the governor, who was accompanied by his wife, Janet, went there to recruit an unnamed Missouri business.
After a couple of light months travel, the governor stepped up flights in July, visiting 11 cities (not including his trip to Las Vegas for the national governor's meeting). By mid-September, he'd visited seven cities.
Col. Bailey, police commissioner Woody Futrell and Sgt. Jimmy Howington flew to Annapolis, Md., March 1 to attend the International Association of Chiefs of Police Convention. Sadler said Sgt. Sparks accompanied the trio and attended sessions on aircraft.
The hourly cost of flying the King Air is $202.75 an hour, Sadler said. That amount does not including maintenance or pilot pay, since the plane is piloted either by a salaried State Police employee or volunteer Marion Burton, who also flew former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.
The round-trip to Annapolis took 7 hours, which, at $202.75 an hour, works out to $1,419.25. Had Bailey and the three other conference attendees flown commercially, they could have flown as cheaply as $952. Cost isn't the only factor in such a junket. The trip took the plane out of use in Arkansas for three days.
The King Air was also used for 13 hours to transport upper echelon State Police officers to command school in Jefferson City, Mo., and their spouses to their graduation. Sadler said the State Police flew the officers back to Little Rock when they had "down time" at school to "reassociate them with their families" and allow them to catch up on work here. He said the agency has the "highest divorce rates" in government, and "we felt we were making an effort to lessen stress on those relationships."
Sadler said the agency flew the spouses to graduation as a "reward, to see what their spouses had been involved in."
Print headline: "Sky King Huckabee logs 96 hours--more than the State Police--in new plane" October 3, 1997.