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State plane use by Gov. Justice, first lady draws scrutiny

CHARLESTON — As 2019 comes to a close, Gov. Jim Justice has used state aircraft far less in his nearly three years in office than the prior two governors, but living in Greenbrier County has caused the governor to rack up thousands of dollars in flights from Charleston to Lewisburg he otherwise wouldn’t if he lived in the state capital as the state Constitution requires.

That’s according to an analysis of flight records provided Wednesday by the West Virginia Aviation Division through a Freedom of Information Act request.

FLY THE FRIENDLY SKIES

The state of West Virginia owns two airplanes — a King Air 350 and a smaller Cessna Grand Caravan — and three helicopters — Bell 407 and two Bell 206s. These aircraft are available to state agencies on first-come first-serve basis. The largest of the aircraft, the King Air 450, can carry nine passengers and charges $1,400 per flight hour.

Jim and Cathy Justice have used state aircraft 62 times — some log entries made up of multiple stops — since Dec. 2, 2016: 46 days before his Jan. 16, 2017, inauguration as the 36th governor of the state of West Virginia. Incidentally, this was the first time the state plane would travel to Lewisburg to pick up what would soon be Gov. Justice.

A state plane flew to Lewisburg Dec. 1, 2016, to pick up Justice, Larry Puccio — Justice’s long-time lobbyist, his campaign chairman, and his gubernatorial transition leader — as well as a former State Police captain for a trip to Washington, D.C. The plane dropped its passengers off in Lewisburg and returned to Charleston.

UPGRADING TO BUSINESS CLASS

The cost of Justice’s 62 flights is approximately $188,984 over 34 months. The most recent flight was a trip to Chicago for first lady Justice to receive an award at the Communities in Schools Leadership Town Hall. The night before the journey to Chicago, a state pilot flew to Lewisburg to transport the governor and first lady to the Windy City.

The Governor’s Office claims that Justice and the first lady use state aircraft far less than his last two predecessors. According to Aviation Division records, former governor (and now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin and first lady Gayle Manchin used one plane — the King Air 350 — 83 times in just his first 12 months in office between Jan. 19, 2005, and Jan. 15, 2006, costing approximately $167,000. The Manchins also used a Caravan 208B during the same time period 27 times, costing the state $24,670.

After Manchin won a special election for U.S. Senate on Nov. 2, 2010, former Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin also served as acting governor until he won a special election on Oct. 4, 2011, as the permanent governor. During the first 12 months between November 2010 and November 2011, former Gov. Tomblin and first lady Joanne Tomblin used state aircraft 57 times, costing the state approximately $105,000.

In the first 12 months of Justice’s term — including the December 2016 flight when he was governor-elect — the governor and first lady used state aircraft 20 times, costing $53,323.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE(S)

The estimated flight time to Greenbrier Valley Airport in Greenbrier County is 18 minutes by King Air and as much as 40 minutes by helicopter — 67 nautical miles from Charleston’s Yeager Airport, according to Aviation Division documents. A drive from Lewisburg to the State Aviation Hangar at Yeager is 114 miles.

The cost of a flight from Charleston to Lewisburg varies based on the aircraft, with some flights costing as little as $420 to as much as $978 depending on weather and other factors, averaging to approximately $724.50 per 67-mile leg. Of the 62 total uses of state aircraft, there were 99 times when the state aircraft either traveled from Charleston to Lewisburg or from Lewisburg back to the Charleston hangar.

The approximate cost to the state for making the extra trip to and from Lewisburg instead of flying exclusively from Charleston: more than $71,000 between December 2016 and Sept. 19. On at least three occasions, a state aircraft traveled to Lewisburg one day only to come back to Charleston the next day with no passengers and seemingly no purpose for the flight. Numerous times, pilots would fly to Lewisburg the night before a trip, requiring lodging and food.

Jordan Damron, a spokesperson for Gov. Justice, pointed out that Justice has used the state plane 51 times — a number that doesn’t include the Dec. 1, 2016, flight or flights where a pilot flew to Lewisburg the night before, flying Justice or the first lady the next day. Damron’s number also doesn’t include the flights to Lewisburg that flew back to Charleston the next day with no passengers.

“In Governor Justice’s two-and-a-half years on the job, he has used the state plane for a grand total of just 51 trips; far less than Governor Manchin’s 606 trips (costing the state more than a million dollars) or Governor Tomblin’s 279 trips (costing more than half a million dollars) during their administrations,” Damron said.

Damron said the costs of flights to and from Lewisburg are small compared to the savings to the state from Justice driving himself to Charleston in his own vehicle, not using the Governor’s Mansion for parties, and not taking a salary, which he donates.

“Governor Justice takes his responsibility to the West Virginia taxpayers extremely seriously,” Damron said. “So seriously, in fact, that he has refused the salary, benefits, parties, and other perks that every governor before him has enjoyed; saving taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.”

Damron said the savings from giving his salary back to the state will be more than $600,000 by the end of his first term. Justice also doesn’t participate in retirement or the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

“If you add it all up, Governor Justice will save West Virginia’s taxpayers more than $2.5 million, compared to those who came before him, by the year 2020,” Damron said.

The matter of where Justice hangs his head is the topic of a complaint filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court December 2018 by Del. Isaac Sponaugle. The Pendleton County Democrat is asking the court to order Justice to follow the state constitution which requires the governor and all members of the Board of Public Works to reside in Charleston, the seat of government. That case is ongoing.

One flight, which involved the King Air 350 flying to Lewisburg May 3 and taking off for Clarksburg, coincides with the Harrison County Republican Executive Committee’s fundraising dinner which Justice spoke at. An ethics complaint and an elections complaint were filed by conservative operative Rob Cornelius on Aug. 28, alleging that Justice used the flight for political purposes, didn’t reimburse the state, or file the cost of the flight on his campaign finance forms.

In a Sept. 10 letter from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office provided by Cornelius, Director of Investigations Kimberly Mason confirmed that the office has legal jurisdiction over the complaint and that it was waiving administrative complaint procedures “because the allegations may warrant a criminal investigation.” The office, by law, can neither confirm nor deny that a complaint has been filed.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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