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The governor’s plane

State Medicaid contractor provided air service.

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AIR HUCKABEE: A Cessna like the one the governor used.
  • AIR HUCKABEE: A Cessna like the one the governor used.

The twin-engine jet that ferried Gov. Mike Huckabee, his wife, his daughter, a staff member and at least one security officer to the North Carolina Republican Party convention in Raleigh on June 2 was provided by the director of the Lord’s Ranch, a religious-based youth home in Warm Springs that had a conflict-filled relationship with the state before Huckabee became governor.

The Cessna Citation SII jet, which lost one of its two engines during the flight, and made an emergency landing in Chattanooga, is owned by Southeastern Asset Management, a corporation registered in New Hampshire whose manager of record is Ted Suhl. Suhl is director of the Lord’s Ranch. Suhl and others connected to the youth home have given thousands of dollars to past Huckabee campaigns; about six years ago, it got its first contract with the state Department of Health and Human Services to provide services to troubled young people. In 2000, the contract was for $140,460 for psychological services; currently, the Lord’s Ranch gets payments for services through Medicaid — about $8.5 million in fiscal 2006, according to DHHS spokeswoman Julie Munsell. State tax revenues provide about 25 percent of Medicaid’s budget in Arkansas.

Suhl did not return a phone call, and an e-mail to Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart requesting information about the trip — including whether Huckabee or one of his political action committees would reimburse Suhl for the cost of the flights — has not been answered. An Internet search of the cost of chartering a Citation SII turned up rates between $1,550 and $1,900 an hour.

Huckabee’s visit was a personal trip outside his official duties as governor. It attracted media attention because of the emergency landing, but Huckabee’s office refused to say who provided the plane. A report on the emergency landing filed at the Chattanooga airport included the name of the company as well as an address and phone number in Warm Springs. Calls to the phone number were not answered.

Under state ethics rules, unless Huckabee reimburses the plane’s owner for the trip, it is considered a gift because the travel was not for official business. And elected officials are prohibited from accepting gifts valued at over $100 unless the official has a relationship with the giver outside his capacity as a public servant and the gift is not a reward for the official doing his job. The fact that the Lord’s Ranch’s relationship with the state has blossomed since Huckabee took office 10 years ago makes it questionable whether Suhl could claim he wasn’t rewarding Huckabee. Even if use of the plane could be claimed as a permissible gift to Huckabee, the governor would have to report it on his annual financial disclosure statement, but that isn’t due until the first of next year.

The Lord’s Ranch has run afoul of the state in the past. In 1990, the state Child Care Review Board voted to revoke the home’s license because of 16 violations, including improper use of restraints on children. The Lord’s Ranch officials denied using restraints improperly, and the board changed its mind and recommended granting a six-month provisional license after getting more information.

In 1994, Ranch officials refused to allow state monitors to inspect the home, and a 1996 report cited continuing compliance problems. But the relationship thawed considerably in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the state gave the Lord’s Ranch its first contract, worth $140,490. Huckabee also appointed Suhl to the Child Welfare Agency Review Board — he was reappointed in 2004 — and appointed Russell Dixon, director of the ranch’s psychiatric program, to the state Psychology Board (his current term ends in 2009). The Ranch is currently in good standing with DHHS, Munsell said.


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