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AP Enterprise: NY gov. flew home in state aircraft

  • Article by: MICHAEL GORMLEY
  • Associated Press
  • August 14, 2011 - 4:57 PM

ALBANY, N.Y. - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used state aircraft for 16 flights to or from his home following statewide tours in which he called for belt-tightening and budget cuts for schools and other services, records show.

Cuomo used state aircraft far less than his predecessors and there is no record of any politicking or fundraising in the trips, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under the state Freedom of Information Law.

The records show Cuomo used a state plane or helicopter to return to suburban Westchester County at the end of statewide tours 16 times from when he took office in January through June, the end of his first legislative session. He used aircraft 23 times during the period.

The state aircraft were then flown from Westchester, where Cuomo lives with his girlfriend and Food Network star Sandra Lee, to the capital of Albany to return the aircraft to their hangar as required.

The governor uses the aircraft only for "official events" and that includes Cuomo's trips to his suburban Westchester home, which the Democrat lists as his official address, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said Saturday. Lee owns the home, and Cuomo's daughters live there much of the time. For travel purposes, however, the executive mansion in Albany is considered a governor's home.

State ethics officials have made it clear in past advisory opinions that state aircraft should not be used essentially for commuting.

On March 22, records show Cuomo, the only passenger besides state police, took the helicopter at 4:30 p.m. to fly from Albany to Westchester. The governor's public schedule listed only a news conference in Albany that day and no public events in Westchester, a two-hour drive from Albany.

The next morning, the records show he flew from Westchester at 9:30 a.m. to Syracuse, then flew at 12:30 p.m. back to Westchester. His March 23 schedule listed the event in Syracuse, part his statewide budget tour where he called for a state budget "that reins in spending, cuts waste and creates efficiencies."

The Cuomo administration said the travel to or from Westchester avoids a prohibition against using state aircraft to commute to work, because the trips — except for March 22 — weren't to or from Albany. Vlasto declined to comment on the March 22 trip.

"The governor uses the plane in furtherance of state business," Vlasto said. "Every trip is approved by the counsel's office and the secretary to the governor and to the extent Governor Cuomo's use of the plane is noteworthy, it's for its limited use and anyone familiar with the relevant law or practice would know that. It's outrageous that due to an apparent lack of news, The Associated Press has now decided to fabricate stories."

Vlasto refused to discuss the trips back to Westchester, saying there is no "private gain" in the flights to and from his home. "Private gain" is prohibited under the state's ethics advisory on use of state aircraft. Defining whether Cuomo's use of aircraft was a private gain would be up to the Commission on Public Integrity.

The administration blacked out points of departure and destination in the records obtained by the AP, citing a provision of law that allows blocking data that "could endanger the life or safety of any person." The administration also blocked out the passengers, other than Cuomo and his staff and two trips by lawmakers. The administration later relented and provided another document that showed the passengers were state police.

Vlasto provided the points of departure and destination only through an interview. The administration also didn't provide the purpose of the trips as requested in the Freedom of Information Law request.

Like his predecessors, Cuomo spends most Thursdays and Fridays in the New York City office. From Westchester, he appears to have been driven by state police in the state's sport utility vehicles, avoiding a longer drive or another flight from Albany to Manhattan.

The AP's records request also sought the cost of the flights, but the administration did not provide that information.

The flight between Albany and Westchester is less than an hour. The lowest price for a chartered plane flight charged by one private company, Richmor Aviation, is $1,300 an hour, according to its website. No spokesman was available Sunday. Another company, Awesome Flight, provides helicopter flights from Albany to Westchester for $1,566. A worker declined to comment beyond confirming the price.

In 2007, Cuomo, then the state attorney general, issued a critical report on the use of state aircraft by the administration of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in which former Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno used aircraft in part for political events.

Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group said Cuomo's practice didn't "set off any alarm bells."

"Given the history on this issue, however, if they haven't done so, out of an abundance of caution we always recommend that public officials get an ethics opinion," he said.

After Cuomo's 2007 investigation as attorney general, the state Commission on Public Integrity issued new guidelines for use of state aircraft.

The opinion, which recognized that any "mixed-purpose" trips raises the question of whether there's a benefit to the public official, continued to allow the practice but set strict requirements. Among them:

_"There must be a bona fide state purpose for the trip."

_"The public official must make an accurate appointment of the time spent between state and non-state business and promptly reimburse the state for that portion of the trip not related to state business."

_"State supplies, equipment, personnel and other resources must be used only for government purposes and not for private gain or partisan politics."

A spokesman for the Commission on Public Integrity declined to comment Saturday.

The AP's request under the state Freedom of Information Law sought records of any reimbursement for use of state aircraft by Cuomo. None was provided or noted.

Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York said part of the problem is the lack of a clear definition of "private gain."

"It applies not just in this situation," she said. "We are proponents of better, more thorough definitions to make it easier for public officials to make the right choices."

In New Jersey, a legislative homeland security panel wants restrictions on the governor's use of state helicopters and a ban on air transit to personal and political events after Gov. Chris Christie used a state police helicopter to catch his son's high school baseball games this year and meet campaign donors. Christie later reimbursed the state for the trips.

Withholding such detail on use of taxpayer-paid resources like state aircraft after the trips seems unreasonable, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. He questioned how there could be a security risk of revealing passengers and destinations of trips that had already been taken.

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