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Traveling on the taxpayers' money

FRANKFORT — Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo has spent more than four times as much in taxpayer money on travel expenses as his primary opponent in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, Attorney General Jack Conway.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reviewed travel-expense documents obtained under the state's Open Records Act covering more than two years since the two men took office. They show that Mongiardo billed the state $33,000 for trips, including conferences and visits across the state. The Kentucky Democratic party reimbursed the state for one $4,000 trip.

It cost at least $23,600 more for state troopers assigned to Mongiardo's security detail to go with him.

Conway, meanwhile, has charged taxpayers $7,247 for travel costs — mostly on a handful of trips for conferences for prosecutors and attorneys general, according to the records.

Both candidates said they've tried to be good stewards of the public's dollars. But with government spending and officials' expenses a key issue with voters during the recession, Mongiardo and Conway acknowledged that their travel should be an issue in their campaigns leading up to the May 18 primary.

"A public office is a public trust," Conway said. "If the state is going to pay for my travel, then it needs to be related to a legitimate government purpose — one in which I am actually working for this office."

Conway said Mongiardo's bills "seemed high" and questioned whether it's "the wisest use of tax dollars" for state police to travel with the lieutenant governor, who has no statutory duties and whose role is largely defined by the governor.

Lt. Col. Leslie Gannon, director of the state police administrative division, said there is no state law or regulation that requires state police to guard the governor, lieutenant governor and their families.

But she said it has been the Kentucky State Police policy "for many years."

Mongiardo said he lets state police determine what security he needs, noting that he has called off security on some occasions.

But one or two troopers accompanied Mongiardo and his wife, Allison, on nearly every in-state and out-of-state trip, according to the records.

In total, the trips for the Mongiardos and the troopers cost taxpayers nearly $57,000 since Mongiardo's and Gov. Steve Beshear's inauguration Dec. 11, 2007.

"Since the economy has been in recession, I've tried to limit my travel and do it only when absolutely necessary," Mongiardo said. "I try to go to very moderate restaurants and usually let the troopers decide where they want to go" to eat, he said.

However, that sometimes took the entourage to fine restaurants, such as the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., and EB Green's Steakhouse in Buffalo, whose Web site calls it one of America's Top Ten Steakhouses.

Mongiardo's expenses there included $48 steaks for him and his wife. The meal cost nearly $193. In addition, his two security guards, Bruce Kelley and John Napier, had dinner at the same restaurant, spending $147. EB Green's menu lists steaks costing from $30 to $77.

Conway, who doesn't have state police security, made fewer trips and billed the state for just two in-state meals during a conference in Lexington. That compared with 27 meals Mongiardo had in Kentucky paid for by taxpayers.

Conway did have a $63 room-service charge at a June 2008 attorneys general's conference in Providence, R.I.

His expenses didn't show what he ate. But he said he believes he was sick at the time and decided to order in at the hotel.

Jim Waters, director of policy and communications for Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank with offices in Lexington and Bowling Green, said some of the expenses for both men appear to be wasteful.

"During this economic downturn, when Kentucky families are trying to put food on the table, this seems to be wasteful spending of tax dollars — big steaks, in-room services. They should be more concerned about the taxpayers," he said.

Waters, who said he and his group are not involved in campaigns and make no endorsements, said a "bigger question than the expenses is how do taxpayers benefit from these trips."

Steaks and crème brûlée

Mongiardo's wife, Allison, accompanied him on most out-of-state trips, such as the National Lieutenant Governors Association conferences in Santa Fe and Buffalo, as well as the August 2008 Democratic National Convention.

"She has been at the national meeting of lieutenant governors, where they have activities for spouses, but she has not been traveling with me lately because of the budget constraints," he said.

She has made appearances without her husband, accompanied by security, at events in Kentucky such as an ATV event in Hazard and a speech at a Lebanon elementary school in 2008.

"When I grew up, my dad said, when it comes to money, always ask yourself three questions: Do you need it? Do you have to have it? Can you do without it?" Daniel Mongiardo said. "When it comes to spending, does she have to go? Do we need her to go? Can we get along without her going?"

Mongiardo's records also showed more than $4,000 for air fare, lodging and meals for Mongiardo and his wife to attend President Barack Obama's Inauguration in January 2009.

His staff on Friday produced a copy of a $4,240 check written on Jan. 23, 2009, from the Kentucky Democratic Party to the state treasury to pay for the couple's trip to the inauguration.

Mongiardo said he did not know who paid for his two-man security detail for the event.

The meal at EB Green's in Buffalo occurred during a stay in July 2008 at the National Lieutenant Governor's Association meeting. The Mongiardos and two troopers spent $339 for one dinner.

In addition to Mongiardo and his wife each having a $48 filet, Mongiardo ordered an $8.50 molten lava dessert. His wife had a $7.50 crème brûlée.

Crème brûlée is "my wife's favorite. She is addicted to it," Mongiardo said.

Asked whether such a meal is extravagant at taxpayers' expense, he said, "Expensive? For New York?"

"That would be expensive in Lexington, Ky. For New York, I've seen $10 baked potatoes," he said. "I don't know if that was expensive or not."

Mongiardo said he does give consideration to taxpayers' money.

"But usually, on a trip, I just allow the troopers to choose where to eat," he said. "Most of the times, we are eating at very moderate restaurants."

'Gun dog' and housing

Another expense for Mongiardo and a trooper was $76 each for rooms at a Holiday Inn Express in Berea in December 2008 during his filming of American Gun Dog for the Outdoor Channel.

Mongiardo said that was a legitimate expense because he was promoting Kentucky.

Other items on Mongiardo's expenses were $755 round-trip tickets from Kentucky to Las Vegas in June 2009 for Mongiardo, staffer Eric Duncan and a trooper.

Mongiardo produced documents showing the tickets for Duncan and the trooper were canceled and that his costs were picked up by a group of more than 500 physicians who wanted him to speak at a "facial aesthetic meeting" for a plastic-surgery gathering.

Mongiardo said he spoke as an ear, nose and throat doctor.

"No state expenses were involved," he said.

Concerning other expenses, Mongiardo said he has no personal state car and used his $30,000-a-year housing allowance granted by the legislature to pay for "an old farm house" he and his wife bought about a year ago in Franklin County.

He also noted that he has taken a 10 percent pay cut the last two years, while Conway has not.

Asked why his total expenses are much higher than Conway's, Mongiardo said he does more for the state than Conway.

No spousal expenses

Conway said he has never charged the state for any expenses of his wife, Elizabeth, and that he flies the "cost efficient" Southwest Airlines.

He also said he has never submitted a reimbursement from the state for any alcoholic beverage or for use of fitness centers at hotels.

He said that was the reason some charges on his expenses were redacted.

His expenses showed small amounts for the use of "minibars," but he said they were for water, juice or soda and snacks.

His biggest expenses were for trips to meetings of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, Providence and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Conway said the conferences have helped him keep up on issues such as mortgages and prescription medications, and he has met Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Conway, who does not have state police protection except on Kentucky Derby Day, said he turned in his state car last year when he started running for the U.S. Senate.

"I didn't want anyone to question whether I was campaigning in a state car" he said.

He noted that he has used security by staff investigators because of threats to his life.

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