Friday, May 18, 2012

Frequent Fliers at Your Expense


            In most of the United States wrongdoing by public officials follows a certain pattern and involves certain set themes. In Mississippi and in Louisiana there are still cash payments, perhaps even in paper lunch bags, a tribute to the mode of financing that built political careers in years past. In New York sex is inevitably involved. In Illinois it’s patronage. In California, at least in recent years, there have been missteps with public pensions and comely housekeepers. In Texas there’s been a mix of some of the above—and state airplanes. 
            Aircraft figured heavily in the career of the widely-regarded, most corrupt, and most successful politician at the Texas Capitol in the last half of the twentieth century, Bob Bullock.
            In the ‘70s the Travis County District Attorney tried to nail State Comptroller Bullock for using state airplanes for campaign purposes—Bullock was never indicted—and in the 1990s the FBI tracked Lieutenant Governor Bullock’s use of private planes believing he might be receiving flights on private aircraft as quid pro quo for political favors. More recently the FBI also showed interest in the flying habits of Governor Bush and Speaker Laney. 
            The reasons why Texas politicians face exposure in the air are simple. It’s a big state in which airplane travel is considered a necessity (although not necessarily, as in the present tale, in a small state-owned aircraft.) Access to private planes is prestigious in Texas where there’s nothing wrong with showing off wealth or privilege. And, last but not least, most of the major state officials in recent years are pilots: Governors Bush and Perry, Speakers Laney and Craddick. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst is ex-Air Force said to have flown for the CIA. W trained to be a fighter pilot while Perry flew military transports, sometimes state officials rely on state pilots to chauffer them around, from home districts to the Capitol, and apparently that's when problems can arise. As in the present tale.
            If you flip through the pages of the Texas Department of Transportation’s aviation logs for, say, the last two years, the same name keeps coming up: State Senator Kevin Eltife of Tyler.
            Eltife, a moderate Republican—viewed as a standup legislator who is also former mayor of Tyler, Texas—is state government’s most frequent, frequent flier, using the Department of Transportation fleet as a kind of private shuttle between Austin and his home and business interests in Tyler. Chairman of the Senate Administration Committee, former recipient of the Texas Association of Business’s “Champion of Free Enterprise” award, Eltife’s official website declares that as mayor of Tyler he implemented a “pay-as-you-go” plan for municipal government. That's mostly what he has not been doing with the state's planes.
            According to numbers supplied by Eltife’s chief of staff Cheryl Vanek, since February 2011 the senator has made 15 separate flights, between Austin and Tyler, at a billed cost of $32,000 to the Senate of which Eltife paid $16,000, Vanek says, from campaign funds. The rest of the tab has been picked up by taxpayers. As the system works, Eltife calls for a state plane, takes the flight, alone, and the aviation wing of TxDot bills the Senate which bills Eltife, who pays or does not pay, as the spirit moves him. 
            The Texas Department of Transportation has four King Airs and two Cessnas. Five pilots. In the last fiscal year there were 1,014 flights, 207,000 miles flown and 2,700 passengers transported. The Department of Public Safety, the University of Texas and Texas Parks and Wildlife, among others all have their own aircraft, although UT still heavily relies upon TxDot’s planes. Eltife’s flights are particularly troublesome because there is commercial service between Austin and Tyler at something less than $500. Most of the flights the senator has made (with one or two state pilots in attendance) have cost in the neighborhood of $2,000 each. Not to be snarky, but the public would be justified in asking, like, if there are snacks offered in-flight?
            Senator Eltife is not alone in liberal use of the TxDot service. State Senator Judith Zaffirini,  Democrat from Laredo has cost the Texas Senate almost $29,000 for flights on state planes in more or less the same period, the last two years. “Our records indicate,” says Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw, “that no reimbursements have been made to the Senate for the specified travel.” Although a less frequent flier than her Republican colleague, and justified at least once or twice by conferences, it’s hard to see why Zaffirini needs to use state aircraft to go to Laredo, a four-hour drive from the Capitol. In the case of Eltife use of state planes may have been influenced by his predecessor, State Senator and Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff who represented the same district and was the previous political generation’s most frequent, frequent flier on state planes, and also considered a good guy and effective legislator. We're not talking evil here, this is all about temptation. A TxDot official notes that use of state planes actually ebbs and flows, according to the season. Recent big users include UT football scouts: “As the team has been losing, they [the scouts] seem to be flying more.” No doubt. Among Kevin P. Eltife's business interests, according to the Secretary of State, is a company called KPE Airplane LLC in Tyler. The company is not called KPE Airlines although that may be a good name for the service the senator so enthusiastically endorses.
             In fairness to Eltife this seems much less like a case of malfeasance and much more like a case of "BTTL," the acronym in politics for "Been There Too Long," whether "there" is Austin or Washington. The Senate's other frequent flier Judith Zaffirini—although considered one of the best legislators on her side of the aisle—has been at the Capitol more than a quarter-century. It's hard to imagine a freshman having the cojones to call for a state aircraft to take him or her home from work, although he or she technically has that right. Usually it takes a couple of terms in Austin to discover perks like these. (You have to find out where the slippery slope is before you can start sliding down it.) What's interesting in the present case is that both Eltife and Zaffirini are considered good public servants. Bob Bullock was born to excess. These two senators learned, like so many others, in Austin.
            More interesting than who is flying on state planes is who is not.
            Neither Governors Perry nor Dewhurst appears on the airplane logs for the last few years. Presumably they have other means of getting where they need to go and have concluded that use of state airplanes is too problematica blind side for attack by political opponents or investigators. (Everyone on a state plane must be listed in the flight log together with the purpose of the flight.) Like campaign interns, state aircraft are fast, convenient and fun to ride. But like interns, the convenience may involve unseen costs after you get there. Corruption can be a matter of bad judgment as much as dishonesty—of knowing or not knowing what gets you in trouble. Both the governor and lieutenant governor seem to understand that, at least in regards this particular perk. 
            Speaking of Caesar's wife, who must also be above suspicion, Anita Perry has made a couple of recent flights as part of her duties as First Lady and her work with the Texas Historical Commission, but she, like her husband, is very reserved in use of state aircraft. Filmmaker Richard Linklater was taken for a ride on a state plane by the governor’s Film Commission, must have been to scout sites. State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson who is a former Marine fighter pilot seems to like the state aircraft well enough but nothing to raise eyebrows, and his office, after all, supervises vast land holdings across the state.
            Attorney General Greg Abbott has taken a few flights, but again nothing stands out, and that is also the case with Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Comptroller Susan Combs. There is cause, then, to respect their apparent husbanding of the state's resources. Staples, Combs, Abbott and Patterson’s offices all have statewide authority and all of their flights together in the last few years do not appear to be excessive—at least not in comparison with those of the senator from East Texas.
            Of the institutional wing of state government, setting aside University of Texas at Austin officials, who get around a lot by plane, probably too much, the most frequent frequent flier in the form of a state agency is the Texas Workforce Commission which regulates unemployment benefits: in the last two years, 21 flights at a cost of $58,000.
            The TWC seems to spend more time in the air than in Austin.
            But maybe that’s a good thing. 

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