NORFOLK -- State travel regulations make it clear that state funds can't be used for personal comfort, taste and convenience.
A $6-million King Air is one of three state planes that Gov. McDonnell has for state business and was available to Tim Kaine when he was governor.
Flight records show McDonnell took 38 flights on state planes and flew 109 hours in state-owned helicopters in his first year in office. Taxpayers paid the $144,000 bill, 30%-more than what former Governor Tim Kaine spent flying on state aircraft in his final year in Richmond. Kaine took 38 flights in state planes but flew just 52 hours in helicopters for a bill of $111,289.
The state says travel expense accounts should be open to public review and travel should be limited to providing essential services to citizens. When we asked the governor to talk to us about his use of state aircraft, his office said no. The governor's staff did agree to answer our questions in an email where someone forgot to delete a back-and-forth showing staffers saw our public review of the governor's travels as a "gotcha series." In spinning the answers, staffers were encouraged, "come up with good explanations," "let's put our heads together" and "edits are welcome."
The governor's office defended the use of state planes saying "It's a 9-hour drive from Virginia Beach to the Cumberland Gap." But we found no records that show the governor ever flew the 500 miles from Virginia Beach to the Cumberland Gap.
“I think the argument to have a state plane is very weak," Christopher Newport University government professor Quentin Kidd said.
Kidd believes commercial flights should be used more in Virginia and argues state aircraft aren’t needed for trips to Washington, D.C. Flight records show McDonnell took a state plane from Richmond to Washington, DC five times last year, costing taxpayers close to $9,000.
"The federal government is right next door to us," Kidd added.
While many governors have state aircraft, many do not or have given them up – most notably was Sarah Palin when, as governor of Alaska, she sold the plan to save taxpayers money.
Governors without state aircraft conduct state business by car or taking commercial flights, something Governor McDonnell did just once in 2010.
Karen Miner Hurd with the Virginia Tea Party Alliance said the governor's use of state aircraft shows a lack of fiscal responsibility.
"I think when you are looking at a thousand dollars an hour for an airplane and $760 an hour for a helicopter when there are other alternatives for non-emergency travel, absolutely," Miner Hurd stated.
The governor’s office insists McDonnell is "vigilant about reducing the cost of government," but we found two flights that look more like road trips than official state business. In March 2010, the governor flew his family to Martinsville where Governor McDonnell served as Grand Marshall of the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief NASCAR race. That trip cost you more than $1,600.
The governor's office defended trip calling it "part of an ongoing effort to promote Virginia events and tourism."
A month later, the governor used a state plane again this time to fly his family to the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival where the governor's daughter was crowned queen.
"We all like to take our families places, and again, was that urgent, was it an emergency trip, were there other ways to get there," Miner Hurd questioned.
While the email to 13News encouraged the governor's staffers to come up with examples of how the use of the state plane actually 'may have saved us money,' we were not given a single example of a trip where the governor's use of a state plane saved you money.
The state has more than $12-million invested in planes for the governor's use. Four full-time pilots also are on the state pay roll, collecting combined salaries of about $300,000.