Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin showed up at Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa, on Nov. 19, 2016, with four bottles of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
The bourbon was a present for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s 70th birthday bash. In tow were three of Bevin’s children, chief of staff Blake Brickman, and operations director John Hodgson. They ate beef and pork barbecue sandwiches, baked beans, cornbread and chocolate cupcakes decorated with phony mustaches.
“He was just an incredible mentor to me and I am extremely grateful,” Bevin told the crowd, according to the Des Moines Register.
The excursion was one of 67 out-of-state trips Bevin made during 2016 and 2017, according to a Lexington Herald-Leader analysis of the governor’s travel records. Taxpayers spent $377,404.50 on those trips, although 49 percent of that cost was later reimbursed by the Republican Party of Kentucky, the hosts of conferences Bevin attended, Bevin’s campaign fund or Bevin personally.
The public was given no notice of his trip to Iowa for Branstad’s birthday, which was eventually reimbursed by the Republican Party of Kentucky. The only sign that Bevin was attending the party, an annual event that often features rising Republican stars with presidential ambitions, was from news reports in the Iowa press.
Bevin’s use of the state plane — and his refusal to disclose where he’s going and why — has become an issue as he campaigns for a second term as governor. He rarely informs the public about the reasons for his travel, regardless of whether it is for economic development, policy discussions or personal vacations. His office will occasionally offer snippets of his speeches from the events he attends or clips of interviews on Facebook, but that is typically done after the fact.
Attorney General Andy Beshear, Bevin’s Democratic opponent, and the Kentucky Democratic Party have demanded Bevin be more transparent about his trips.
In December 2018, Bevin’s office cited “security purposes” as its reason for not disclosing the purpose of his trips to the Herald-Leader. Last week, however, Bevin had a different answer.
“Why does it matter what the purpose (of the trip) is?” Bevin told a reporter from the Bowling Green Daily News. “Did taxpayers pay for it? If they did, then they should know the purpose. If they didn’t pay for it, it’s none of their business.”
Bevin hasn’t lived up to that standard of disclosure.
In late 2018, the Herald-Leader compiled a list of 52 out-of-state flights the governor took in 2016 and 2017 for unknown reasons and sent it to the governor’s office, asking for an explanation of why each flight was taken. Several of those flights were paid for with taxpayer funds and never reimbursed by a private entity. The governor’s office, though, declined to state a reason for any of the trips.
Without that basic information about each flight, the public has no way to verify that Bevin has properly reimbursed the state for his personal use of state-owned aircraft.
“Folks, it is your business, this is your plane,” Beshear said in a video on Twitter last week. “This governor will never treat your tax dollars like he should, understanding they are sacred and understanding that he must be transparent.”
Such secrecy is unusual among governors. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee provides the press with a weekly schedule of public events, including days he’s traveling to out-of-state destinations. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts provides a daily schedule on his website, as does Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, to name a few.
In Kentucky, the courts have ruled the public has no right to know where their governor is at any given time.
In 1995, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that the governor’s appointment calendar is a preliminary document and therefore does not have to be released to the public under the Kentucky Open Records Act. A state law, KRS 174.506, which was instituted in 1998 and amended in 2009, also says the governor or lieutenant governor can use state aircraft for personal business, as long as they reimburse the state for the full cost.
Kathryn Gabhart, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, said there is nothing contained in the state’s ethics code that requires a constitutional officer to state a reason for an out-of-state trip.
“Kentucky — state agencies as a whole — take more of a passive role,” Gabhart said. “They don’t inform the public unless they have to.”
Elizabeth Kuhn, the governor’s communications director, said Tuesday that “Gov. Bevin’s use of the state plane, and the records documenting that use, follow the law and are transparent in showing reimbursements.”
Kentucky governors have had access to a state police plane at least since the administration of Gov. Julian Carroll, who served between 1974 and 1979. Carroll said the plane helped him stay on schedule.
“I was questioned quite often if I was using transportation too much,” Carroll said. “But quite candidly, my schedule was always full every day and I didn’t have the time to get in a vehicle and drive two hours.”
Former Gov. Steve Beshear, the father of Andy Beshear, also faced scrutiny for his use of the state plane, including one trip to the Final Four in Houston in 2010. Andy Beshear was among those on the flight.
Why did Bevin fly?
Through a combination of flight records, news reports, news releases from outside groups and the governor’s social media pages, the Herald-Leader pieced together the reasons for about 25 flights. The rest remain a mystery.
Some of the trips are clearly part of Bevin’s effort to recruit businesses. He has made economic development the rallying cry of his administration and trumpeted his desire to “make Kentucky the manufacturing and engineering hub” of the country.
In his first out-of-state trip as governor, Bevin went to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show. Kentucky is home to several auto manufacturing plants, including Toyota in Georgetown and Ford in Louisville. Bevin posted a video from the show on Facebook.
Other times, the governor’s traveling companions give an indication of the purpose. Although the governor’s office did not say why Bevin took a trip to New York City on March 25, 2017, Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Terry Gill was on the flight, a sign that recruiting businesses was at least part of the conversation.
Gill also was on the state plane with Bevin and Charles Grindle, the state’s chief technology officer and a target of Beshear’s campaign because he is a friend of Bevin who received a $215,000 salary increase, as they traveled to Seattle, Wash., in September 2017.
That was the same month Seattle-based Amazon announced it was seeking to establish a second headquarters campus, launching a nationwide frenzy to lure the company before it settled on locations in New York City and Washington D.C.
While visiting Amazon is one possible explanation for the trip, that doesn’t explain the stops the group made in Chicago and Billings, Mont., before they eventually spent the night in Seattle. The trip was the most expensive Bevin took in 2016 and 2017, costing the state $18,430.
This wasn’t the only trip with multiple unexplained stops. In July 2016, when Bevin attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, it was part of a five-day trip.
On July 14, Bevin went from Frankfort to Des Moines, Iowa, and stayed overnight. There was no public reason given for the trip. The next day he went to Virginia, then to Maine, where he spent two nights before going to the convention and then flying to Frankfort.
Of the 29 states Bevin visited in 2016 and 2017, Maine was his second most frequent destination after Washington D.C. The governor grew up right across the border in New Hampshire and his family still has a vacation home in Bryant Pond, Maine, not too far from where he attended high school at Gould Academy.
Bevin landed in Maine 10 times. On some trips, there were multiple stops in Maine. For example, he sometimes would land in Lewiston, Maine, and then Bethel, Maine, or vice versa. Lewiston and Bethel are 44 miles apart.
In June 2017, he shuttled one of his daughters between Kentucky and Maine for a six-day stay, making stops in Baltimore and Washington D.C. He did something similar in September of that year, taking his six daughters to Maine and then back through Pittsburgh on his way to Kentucky.
Both trips were partially reimbursed by Bevin himself. The Governor’s office would not say why the governor took the trips, but his office posted a video on his Facebook Page of his appearance on a panel at the “Select USA” investment summit in Washington D.C.
Kentucky law says if a trip is part business and part personal, the governor or lieutenant governor is responsible for calculating how much is owed to the state, based on “a rate developed by a commercial air charter company.”
Depending on the aircraft, it costs between $925 and $1,090 an hour for the governor to fly the state plane.
Raising Bevin’s public profile
On Feb. 9, 2017, Bevin traveled in the Kentucky State Police’s King Air plane from Frankfort to Lynchburg, Va., with his personal aide, Taylor Sears, and a state trooper.
It was the day after Bevin’s second State of the Commonwealth Address, and he was drawing criticism online from Louisville teachers after calling Jefferson County Public Schools an “unmitigated disaster” in a radio interview before the speech.
Bevin would spend his afternoon away from those concerns as he hit the campaign trail with Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia.
In the afternoon, they spoke with the Lynchburg Region Business Alliance and some students at Liberty University. Then Bevin took the state plane to Staunton, where he had a conversation with Gillespie on Facebook Live.
The trip to Virginia is just one example of many that Bevin used to raise his national public profile or campaign for others. His most frequent destination is Washington D.C., where he’s been a guest for presidential bill signings, a member of round-table discussions on issues like opioid abuse, and a speaker at conservative conferences, such as CPAC.
Bevin also often flew west to attend conferences, including the 2017 American Legislative Exchange Council conference in Colorado and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2016 ideas festival in Salt Lake City. The conferences, where Bevin is often a featured speaker, help expose him to conservative circles and allow him to tap into a wide fundraising base. Both are critical if he someday hopes to launch a national political campaign.
Those conferences also included several meetings of the Republican Governors Association and National Governors Association. Over the course of his first term, Bevin has risen to the position of policy vice-chairman of the RGA.
He made the trip to President Donald Trump’s Doral Resort in Miami for the Republican Governors Association’s corporate policy summit in 2017, according to security expenses from the time. The flight cost $2,979.92 and he spent $1,416.5 at the resort, according to expense reports filed by Bevin’s security team.
In total, the Republican Party of Kentucky, the Heritage Foundation, the Republican Governor’s Association, Bevin’s campaign fund and Bevin personally reimbursed the state $184,483.27 for his travel expenses between 2016 and 2017.
Bevin’s communication director, Elizabeth Kuhn, said in August 2018 that all 2016 and 2017 flights had been properly reimbursed. Kuhn said there is no deadline to submit reimbursements, but they work to reimburse the state in a “timely manner.”
“The reimbursement process is initiated once the governor’s office receives a flight bill from the Kentucky State Police or the Department of Aviation, depending on which agency’s plane was used for the flight,” said Kuhn, Bevin’s communications director.
The Herald-Leader sought details about specific flights several times over the course of a year, and experienced frequent delays in receiving records from Kentucky State Police. Eventually, the Bevin Administration grew tired of the questions.
“The communications office has been working with you for over a year now to answer your questions and provide detailed records showing that all flights have been properly reimbursed and to explain to you how this process works,” Kuhn wrote in a December 2018 email. “It’s clear to us that you are more interested in trying to prove that we have somehow failed to follow this process rather than writing a fair story. This is the last request for information that we will be responding to related to this topic.”