FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear used a state plane in April to take his family to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in Houston, but the state Democratic Party picked up the $6,105 tab for the flight.
Since Beshear became governor in December 2008, he has made much use of state aircraft for political and non-governmental purposes — but not at state expense.
The Democratic Party has reimbursed the state about $85,000 and Beshear's re-election campaign has paid the state $5,645 to cover the cost of such flights by the Democratic governor, according to a review of flight-expense records by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Questions about Beshear's use of the state aircraft arose in March when the Herald-Leader reported Beshear used a state airplane to attend a political event in Louisa during a two-day trip around the state to rally public support for a plan to deal with shortfalls in the Medicaid program.
Beshear initially said his trips to nine Kentucky cities were not related to his re-election campaign. After an inquiry by the newspaper, Beshear's campaign manager, Bill Hyers, acknowledged the governor had "a political event" in Louisa and would follow his administration's policy to reimburse the state for any non-governmental use of state aircraft.
Beshear implemented rules in February 2008 regarding use of state aircraft for personal and political purposes, an issue stemming from the administration of former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
The policy states that "any costs of travel for personal purposes shall not be paid with state funds. Travel for political purposes is deemed a personal activity. The costs of travel for personal or political purposes shall be calculated using costs that would be considered at a rate developed by a commercial air charter company."
In the 2007 race for governor between Beshear and Fletcher, Fletcher's opponents criticized him for his use of state aircraft. Fletcher, who lost the race, eventually repaid the state $19,259.21 for use of official aircraft to attend 35 campaign events.
Documents obtained through the state Open Records Act show that the campaign of Beshear and his running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, has reimbursed the state $5,645.14 for nine flights to Kentucky cities since July 1.
The Beshear-Abramson campaign also reimbursed the state $958.47 for other expenses, including $570 for a strategy meeting Sept. 27 at the Governor's Mansion. The expense was for breakfast and lunch for 19 people.
The Kentucky Democratic Party has reimbursed the state $84,991.32 for 37 Beshear flights since he took office. Most of those flights were in-state for party-related events like the annual Fancy Farm political picnic in early August in far Western Kentucky.
Out-of-state flights for which the party reimbursed the state included national conferences and political meetings in Washington, D.C.
But the purpose of some trips was not clear.
For example, the party paid $3,237.50 for a December 2009 trip for the governor and first lady Jane Beshear to Luray, S.C.; $6,491.45 for a March 2010 flight for the governor to Naples, Fla.; $7,995 for a May 2010 trip to Destin, Fla., for the Beshears, their younger son, Andy, and his wife, Britainy, and grandson, Will; $3,282.82 for another Beshear flight to Naples, Fla., in August; and $4,745.25 for the Beshears to go to Saratoga, N.Y., in August.
The governor's office referred questions about the purposes of those trips to the Democratic Party.
Party spokesman Matt Erwin said the trips "were of a non-governmental nature and not paid for with taxpayers' dollars."
He said no member of the Democratic Party has complained about the party paying for Beshear's flights.
The passenger list for the governor's flight this year to Houston for the Final Four included his wife and their sons, Jeff and Andy. They flew to Houston on April 2 and returned April 3.
The Democratic Party reimbursed the state by check May 2. Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said there are no records indicating the state paid for hotel rooms or food during the trip.
In an April 1 memo to office manager Mae Girkey, Beshear directed that no state expense be involved in the trip.
"My role as governor includes representing the commonwealth in all manner of events, such as the appearance of the University of Kentucky in the Final Four round of the NCAA basketball tournament," Beshear said in the memo, which was released by the Democratic Party. "While costs associated with performance of this official duty are valid governmental expenses, I nonetheless prefer that the state not bear the cost of this trip."
Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said Beshear's commitment to avoiding the use of taxpayers' money for personal expenses stands in contrast to other elected officials "who spend $17,000 on a TV or $1,500 on a hotel room a 20-minute drive from their home."
Logsdon was referring to a TV set Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, purchased a few years ago for his Frankfort office and to Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer's decision to stay at a Lexington suite for four nights during this year's Sweet 16 boys' basketball tournament. Farmer lives in Frankfort.
Williams is running for governor this year, and Farmer is his running mate. Williams moved the controversial TV this year to the state Senate chamber and bought another one for his office at his expense.
Williams' spokesman, Scott Jennings, predicted that many Democratic Party supporters will question Beshear's use of their money for travel.
"I imagine donors to the Democratic Party will be surprised to learn their contributions are being used to subsidize the vacation plans of multimillionaires instead of things like, you know, voter registration and turnout," he said.
Sarah Jackson, executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, declined to comment on any specific reimbursement by the Beshear campaign or Democratic Party to the state.
She said a payment from a campaign account must further the campaign, and a payment from a political party must further the party or be considered an in-kind contribution.
She said that the registry does not regulate party bylaws but that the governor is considered the titular head of the party. The governor's party usually has wide latitude in how it aids its governor, she said.