Politics & Government

Beshears use state plane to go to SEC tourney, but Democratic Party will pay for trip

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear used a state plane March 9 to go to the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament in New Orleans and take a side trip to Ocala, Fla., for Jane Beshear to visit friends.

Because the trips were "non-governmental travel" and the governor "participated in some Democratic Party activities," the Kentucky Democratic Party will pick up the tab for use of the state's King Air, said Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson.

Richardson said Friday she did not know the cost of the trips because the Democratic governor had not received an invoice.

Jane Beshear, who went to Florida on Sunday after leaving New Orleans, will return to Kentucky on Monday in a private vehicle at no cost to the state, Richardson said.

The Beshears and an executive security detail were the only passengers on the flight, she said.

Richardson referred questions about the governor's political activities on the trip to the state Democratic Party.

Party spokesman Matt Erwin said Beshear was involved in activities for the Kentucky Democratic Party while in New Orleans. He did not elaborate.

State Republican Party chairman Steve Robertson is critical of the Beshears' use of the state plane.

"First off, it would continue to be my hope that the governor and Kentucky Democratic Party would realize that state property was not designed for personal and political purposes," Robertson said.

"Can't this governor ride coach in a commercial plane?"

Robertson also said he would like to know more about Beshear's political activities in New Orleans.

"Was it fund-raising? Was he out raising money for the party to support President Obama this year? Kentuckians should know."

Robertson noted that Beshear used a state plane last April to take his family to the NCAA Final Four in Houston.

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 $100,000 for his trips. Last year, his re-election campaign paid the state about $6,000 to cover the cost of such flights.

Questions about Beshear's use of the state aircraft arose last March when the Herald-Leader reported that 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 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.

Jim Waters, president of Bluegrass Institute, which promotes free-market capitalism and smaller government, said Friday that he thinks Kentucky taxpayers will have to decide whether Beshear's use of the state plane to go to a basketball tournament is "an intentional or unintentional foul."

Waters also said he would like to know whether the Democratic Party's payment for the flights "covers all the expenses, like wear and tear on the plane."