Op-Ed

What goes up in political travel often comes down

A Kentucky state trooper videotaped the wreckage of Gov. Brereton Jones’ helicopter on Aug. 7, 1992 in Shelby County. The governor and the other five passengers were hospitalized but none suffered life-threatening injuries.
A Kentucky state trooper videotaped the wreckage of Gov. Brereton Jones’ helicopter on Aug. 7, 1992 in Shelby County. The governor and the other five passengers were hospitalized but none suffered life-threatening injuries. Herald-Leader file photo

Following the trail of denials and explanations about President Donald Trump’s millionaires flying on aircraft paid by taxpayers reminds me of Kentucky’s most identified flying object — the governors’ helicopter.

Both Govs. John Y. Brown (1979-1983) and Brereton Jones (1991-95) used it constantly. Unfortunately, I, as press secretary to both, was left standing on the tarmac to explain why this or that particular flight was so necessary that taxpayers had to foot the bill.

I was often on the flight myself, though not the fateful day, Aug. 7, 1992, when the tail rotor fell off as the so-called “uncrashable” Sikorsky dropped like a rock in a cow pasture in Shelby County. Experts calculated that had the helicopter been ascending for another 30 seconds, no one could have survived.

Jones barely escaped with his life, as did five other souls on board. All received serious injuries and the governor injured his back, which still bothers him today. The helicopter had a very expensive second motor that was supposed to kick in if the main one failed; I never heard what happened to the backup. As it turned out, it was about as uncrashable as the Titanic was unsinkable, just not as many souls involved.

I was in New York on vacation with my son who, when he saw where I used to sit, offered me the soothing advice, “Dad, if you’d been sitting there, with your luck you wouldn’t have made it.” The engine had dropped through the roof and was half-lodged directly in my window seat on the passenger side.

Even in those days, government use of the expensive helicopter was seen as an abuse of taxpayers’ money. A trip from Frankfort to Louisville that might have cost $200 in a police cruiser was said to have cost upward to $5,000 in the Sikorsky.

One reporter, inveterate Ed Ryan, my close friend and former colleague at The Courier-Journal, took to ending his story, whatever the subject, with “Today is the (for example, 86th day) since Gov. Brown announced he would sell the helicopter.”

The Browns — with their New York, Miami, Hollywood circles of business associates and friends — simply had more causes to use a helicopter than did their successors, who preferred their home in Midway to the Beverly Wilshire. Phyllis could be at the airport in Covington in minutes to catch a plane for her weekly network appearance on CBS Sports. The governor could leave at noon to open a new section at the Corvette plant in Bowling Green and be home at 3 p.m.

It was also not unusual to hear that the governor’s helicopter had been seen near a mall in Louisville, shortening a half-day shopping trip to an hour or so.

When millionaires in Trump’s Cabinet take private trips on chartered jets paid for by taxpayers, it’s not a few miles and a few hundred dollars. The cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — junkets all the same, they just cost more.

The best one I have read about involves Kentucky and Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Mnuchin, a Wall Street whiz kid said to be worth several million dollars. He chartered a jet and flew his stunning wife Louise Linton — not to see the solar eclipse, so visible in Kentucky — but to see the gold at Fort Knox.

First, Linton embarrassed herself by talking about the couple’s wealth, then embarrassed everyone else by mentioning the various fashionable items she had worn. “Glad we could pay for your little getaway,” a Kentuckian greeted her on social media. That’s when she got mad, responding, “You’re adorably out of touch …your kids look very cute. Your life looks cute.”

After nine months in office, Mnuchin’s tax bill for free flying is $800,000.

Another star of the Trump frequent flyer club, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, won’t be flying so high, at least at taxpayers’ expense. He was fired for charging the government at least $400,000 for domestic charter flights instead of flying commercial. Price said he would reimburse the government for his questionable travel costs, but he only mentioned repaying $50,000.

Now Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is under investigation for private plane travel.

Out of all this the question remains: How much should Trump himself have to pay for taking his extended family to his golf resorts and his Florida mansion, Mar-a-Largo? Some flights on Air Force One come to nearly $1 million each.

Who is going to question Congress for its seven-year fight to kill Medicare and Medicaid for the poor, aged and disabled; cutting lunches for poor children; for cutting benefits for heroes fighting their wars, while paying millions of taxpayer dollars to let everyday run-of-the-millionaires fly like Saudi princes?

Frank Ashley of Lexington, a former Courier-Journal reporter, served as press secretary for two governors. Reach him at famedia@aim.com.

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