RALEIGH — Despite scrutiny by The News & Observer of Raleigh in 2002 over his use of state aircraft to travel to his home in Southport, Gov. Mike Easley has increased the frequency of such trips this year.
Of the 48 day trips this year (through Aug. 15) on the state Department of Commerce’s Sikorsky 76 helicopter or Cessna 550 airplane, 25 included legs that either dropped Easley off in Brunswick County or nearby Wilmington at the end of a week, or picked him up there on a Monday or Tuesday.
By early June 2002, the N&O reported that Easley had flown to or from home 16 times that year on the helicopter. Bryan Beatty, secretary of the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which is responsible for the governor’s security, at the time defended usage of the helicopter as often necessary for Easley’s protection. He also said sometimes it makes more sense for time efficiency.
Nearly all the trips this year were to promote Easley’s agenda, with most carrying a public relations staffer. Eighteen of this year’s excursions were to the locations of new or expanding businesses in the state, for the purpose of announcing Easley’s disbursement of targeted economic development incentives to the companies. Other reasons given for the air travel were ribbon cuttings, troop deployments, highway dedications, and bill signings. Easley also flew to survey damage caused by Hurricane Alex; to the National Governors’ Association conference in Washington, D.C.; to the North Carolina Association of Educators’ conference in Fayetteville; and to Wilmington on a Sunday for a press conference in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Charley.
The Department of Commerce operates the helicopter at an hourly rate of $2,050, while the Cessna costs $1,782 per hour to run. In all, the governor has been in the air on taxpayer-funded aircraft this year for 110 hours at a cost of $217,711. However, other state agencies (including Easley’s office) that use the aircraft are billed only at $550 per hour. The governor’s office has been charged $61,095 for aircraft usage this year.
Easley this year had accumulated 12,828 miles in air travel on state-owned aircraft through Aug. 15.
Eleven of the trips were identified as partially for political events, in addition to official state business. State policy for such trips, issued by the Office of State Budget and Management, says “state funds may be used to pay up to one-half of the travel and/or subsistence costs.” In those cases the state agency is charged at the lower rate, while the non-state entity (Easley’s campaign, in this case) must pay at the actual operating rate. In each of the 11 partially political trips, the time usage was divided evenly between the campaign and the governor’s office at their respective rates.
The Easley campaign has paid $26,156 so far this year to offset the cost of travel on state aircraft.
Only two of Easley’s day trips that included political activity had legs to his Southport home. Every jaunt from Raleigh, where the aircraft always originate, to Wilmington/Brunswick County represents about 100 air miles and one hour of aircraft usage. Easley’s presence at his coastal home on weekends required that pilots pick him up on 12 occasions this year on a Monday (seven times) or Tuesday (five times), before proceeding to their destination and ultimately back to Raleigh at the end of the day. Likewise, the governor was dropped off in Wilmington or Brunswick 13 times at the end of a workweek before the aircraft would return to Raleigh with other staff and security.
In many cases, the segment of travel to and from Wilmington/Brunswick County was the longest of the entire trip.
Often trips to Wilmington were tacked on to destinations on the way there, such as the travel to the Fayetteville teachers’ union conference, or to Jacksonville for a press conference related to Base Realignment and Closure.
But on other occasions journeys to Southport were added to trips as far-flung as Asheville, for a jobs announcement in July for Jacob Holm Industries, or to Concord, where Easley and son Michael traveled to promote the state back-to-school shopping tax holiday in August.
In total, trips on state aircraft that included detours to Southport cost taxpayers $127,797. Costs for trips for jobs announcements totaled $85,170.
In June 2002 The News & Observer reported that Easley’s staff said the governor would pay for any air travel “not deemed necessary for state business or security reasons.” Easley’s spokeswoman Cari Boyce told the newspaper that his trips would be reviewed at the end of that fiscal year to determine which ones were for personal travel for the governor.
Boyce did not respond this week to a CJ question about Easley’s personal usage and reimbursement for state aircraft.
Easley’s critics said his personal usage of the aircraft demonstrated poor stewardship, especially in light of recent years’ shortfalls.
“One-hundred thousand dollars could help a lot of students in North Carolina,” said Bill Peaslee, chief of staff for the state Republican Party. “I know a lot of schools that would like to get their hands on that money. [Easley]’s continued use of state resources in this way contributes to the problem.”
State employees have received in recent years what they say are paltry raises, dips into their pensions, cuts in the state health plan, and restrictions on necessary state travel. Sherry Melton, director of communications for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, said Easley’s personal use of the aircraft set a poor example.
“It’s a little hard to swallow that [the governor] continues to use the state helicopter to go to his beach house,” she said. “Our folks, I’m sure, don’t want to hear about [how small the amount of money is], because they’re hurting. It’s the principle of the thing.”
State Sen. Cecil Hargett, a Democrat who represents Onslow County and Camp Lejeune, did not want to speak about the governor’s usage of the aircraft without first-hand knowledge of the trips. On May 13, a Thursday, Hargett traveled with the governor and his spokesman, Ernie Seneca, to Jacksonville to announce $150,000 in state matching funds for a county group to help “protect Camp Lejeune and the Marine Corps Air Station at New River from any potential base closings.”
“The one trip I accompanied him on was certainly a legitimate use of the state aircraft,” Hargett said.
After the announcement both Easley and Hargett went to their respective homes, and Seneca returned to Raleigh.
Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at email@example.com.