Bill would rein in use of state planes

Bill would rein in use of state planes

INSIDE: Wednesday in Legislature/Page 2B


Capital Bureau

MONTGOMERY - A Clarke County representative introduced legislation Wednesday that would limit use of state aircraft by government officials, after information appeared on Gov. Bob Riley's Web site that the governor had recently flown on a state plane to attend two out-of-state weddings.

The bill by state Rep. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, would ban state officials from using state aircraft for campaigning, fundraising or personal reasons, and require the Department of Finance to keep records of the date and time of flights, the cost of flights, their purpose and any passengers.

"The General Fund budget is strapped, and we need to find ways to save the state money," Keahey said Wednesday. "Preventing use of the state plane for personal use is a good place to start."

Keahey introduced a resolution on April 26 calling for an audit of Riley's use of a state plane to attend the weddings. Riley took a plane to a wedding in Columbus, Ga. - about 90 minutes from Montgomery by car - on Feb. 17, and to a wedding in Jackson, Miss., on March 17.

Keahey said he has withdrawn his resolution because he has now filed his bill, but still wants the Department of Public Examiners of Accounts to audit Riley's flight logs.

After taking office in 2003, the Riley administration started posting quarterly logs of aircraft use by the governor online. The information also covers first lady Patsy Riley, and the governor's staff, including information on the date of his flights, their purpose and the passengers on board.

In a prepared statement, Tara Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the governor, said he went "above and beyond" state laws in disclosing his trips and would sign Keahey's bill if it passes.

"But he hopes legislators will also pass the public disclosure bill he (Riley) has introduced," the statement said, referring to a proposal backed by the governor to require full disclosure of lobbyist spending on public officials.

"In addition, if legislators want to put these restrictions on use of the state plane, they should also put these same restrictions on use of state vehicles, which are provided to a number of elected officials," the statement continued.

The governor's records show House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, took trips with Riley to attend a funeral in January and travel to Atlanta to fly to Europe for economic recruitment in February. Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. flew from Atlanta to Birmingham with Riley at the end of that February trip.

State law gives the governor wide discretion in use of aircraft, said Hugh Evans, an attorney with the Alabama Ethics Commission, so long as the governor does not get personal gain. The Ethics Commission, though, has limited power to regulate the practice of using state planes.

"We deal with any issue dealing with personal gain," Evans said. "(But) the code section controlling the use of the airplane doesn't specifically fall under our jurisdiction."

The bill does not provide any penalties for violations. Keahey said that "wasn't my concern" when the bill was written. The representative also said he is not opposed to use of the state plane to transact business.

"If it is state business, the governor needs to use the plane for state business," he said.