Gov. Frank Murkowski recently combined flights taken on a state jet for official business with campaigning and personal trips. He maintains there was no conflict of interest or abuse of his powers.
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Defying public outcry from critics who called it wasteful government spending, the governor authorized the purchase of a $2.7 million Westwind II jet last year. It is available for the governor's use and for transporting state prisoners to a camp in Arizona. Prisoners typically ride on the slower King Air planes that cost a fraction of the new jet's operating costs per hour, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, a watchful observer of the Republican governor's use of the jet, noted in his constituent newsletter "Off the Record" earlier this month examples of flights that were possibly wasteful to the state or timed with campaigning. Murkowski is seeking the Republican Party's nomination for re-election in November.
Murkowski responded to Elton in a letter sent to the senator and copied in shortened version to the Anchorage Daily News for publication in its editorial pages.
In question are Murkowski's stops in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Kodiak the day he announced his campaign for re-election, a trip Murkowski made with his wife to Bellingham, Wash., another to Salt Lake City, and a trip to Petersburg.
"All of the flight segments listed - indeed, all of this office's use of the aircraft - include events that are legitimate state business in the location to which the aircraft flies, with the exception of Salt Lake City," Murkowski replied in his letter.
The Utah stop was a personal one, and Murkowski's staff says he paid for it.
When Murkowski announced his candidacy May 26 in Fairbanks, he had flown to the city the day before to participate in a public meeting on the administration's proposal to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to markets in Alberta and possibly Chicago.
Later that day, Murkowski stopped in Anchorage for a bill signing and announced his candidacy. The day ended in Kodiak with him attending a groundbreaking ceremony.
Murkowski said in his letter those stops were scheduled days before he decided to run for re-election.
"It's not like we're making these trips up," Manly said.
Total jet costs for the tour were $4,490, according to Elton.
Republican John Binkley, opponent of Murkowski in the gubernatorial race, said the governor should not use the jet at all during the campaign season.
"I think that the governor should reimburse the state" for trips to places where he made campaign speeches while also doing state business, Binkley said.
Legislative ethics law discourages the use of office fax or copying machines for nonlegislative business, Elton wrote in letter responding to Murkowski.
"If that's the rule that governs the use of legislative office machines, why should you be able to use a state asset, piloted by the state employees, to jet you to and from your yacht?" Elton wrote.
On May 12, the governor and his wife flew to Belligham, Wash. Murkowski's spokesman said the governor was inspecting the ferry terminal at the invitation of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The 53-foot boat known to many as the governor's yacht was docked in Puget Sound at the same time. Two days later, the governor was in Port Hardy, British Columbia, where Murkowski caught the jet back to Juneau.
The total cost for these trips was $8,704, according to Elton.
Manly said the governor was not conducting state business in Port Hardy.
After Murkowski and his wife attended an oil and gas conference May 23, the state jet dropped the two off in Salt Lake City, which is near a residence they own in Utah, spokesman John Manly said.
The Montana-Utah trip costs were $15,661, Elton reported. The added cost for the stop in Utah was billed to the governor and Murkowski paid, Manly said.
The governor has also reimbursed the state for portions of various flights in which his immediate family members were passengers, Manly added.
Also in May, the governor flew to Petersburg to participate in the city's Little Norway Festival, a trip that amounted to $4,490, according to Elton.
"I would assume most Alaskans would agree that it is legitimate for the governor to attend events such as Little Norway, wouldn't you?" Murkowski wrote in his letter.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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