Gov. Murkowski's Use of State Jet may have Violated Law

Gov. Frank Murkowski skirted the advice of state attorneys when he took the state's corporate jet on three trips last summer and spent most of his time campaigning for re-election, a review of state records suggests.

And his failure to reimburse the state for dozens of trips by first lady Nancy Murkowski may have violated the state's ethics law.

State attorneys and the Alaska Public Offices Commission have said it is all right for governors to travel on state aircraft while campaigning as long as the "primary purpose" of such trips is official business. But on three of the 28 dual-purpose trips Murkowski took during his campaign season -- roughly from June 1 through the Aug. 22 primary election -- the governor spent more than half his time politicking. Murkowski lost his re-election bid and left office in December.

A list of the trips compiled by the governor's office shows that Murkowski spent five of his seven working hours during an Aug. 4 trip to Fairbanks on campaign business, or 71 percent of his time. He spent 59 percent of his time on an Aug. 9 trip from Juneau to Anchorage on political business, and 56 percent of his time on another Anchorage trip Aug. 3.

The breakdown of campaign time on the other 25 trips aboard the state jet during that period ranged from 11 percent to 45 percent.

'PRIMARY PURPOSE' COMES INTO QUESTION

An assistant state attorney general in the ethics section said in a June 12 opinion, issued about two weeks after Murkowski announced that he would seek re-election, that it was all right for the governor to use the state-owned jet for campaigning, but only if the "primary purpose" of the trip was official business. Previous governors also have flown at state expense during campaign season, then reimbursed the state for a portion of the cost. Following a directive from the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the state's campaign-finance watchdog, Murkowski also reimbursed the state, but at a rate far less than the cost of flying the state's Westwind II jet.

"If performance of official duties is truly the primary purpose of a trip, a public officer will not violate the Ethics Act by using state aircraft for the trip," the opinion by senior assistant attorney general David Jones says.

"However, it is important to apply careful judgment in determining the primary purpose of a trip. ... Accordingly, individuals traveling for the primary purpose of participating in partisan political activities should not use state aircraft for that travel."

In an e-mailed response to a question last week, Jones said the amount of time spent on official business is one factor to consider in determining the "primary purpose" of a trip, but not the only one.

"If we were analyzing a complaint or request for advice, we would consider all of the relevant circumstances, including percentage of time spent, but that factor would not necessarily be determinative," Jones wrote in the e-mail.

In an interview, APOC Executive Director Brooke Miles said she thinks the amount of time spent on state business is important.

"I would say if more than 50 percent of the trip was on campaigning, then the principal purpose of the trip wasn't for state work," Miles said. "That would be my recommendation to the commission if I were making one."

Jim Clark, Murkowski's former chief of staff, said he wasn't familiar with the particulars of those trips. But it's possible that the main reason for a trip could be "something that was critically important for the state but didn't take a lot of time," he said.

NANCY MURKOWSKI'S ROLE

Murkowski also deviated from the policy of previous governors in failing to reimburse the state for his wife's travel on state aircraft during his four years in office.

Frank and Nancy Murkowski are on a round-the-world cruise and couldn't be reached for comment.

Typically, the state has paid for governors' spouses to travel only when the spouses have official duties of their own to attend to, such as attending first-lady events, said Linda Perez, who has served as director of administrative services in the governor's office since the early 1980s.

When spouses traveled with governors on other trips, they would reimburse the state. But Nancy Murkowski accompanied her husband on scores of trips during his four years in office and the state was reimbursed for only a handful of them, Perez said.

In 2004, when Perez questioned Nancy Murkowski's travel, Clark responded with a memo explaining that she was more than a spouse.

"In addition to her duties as First Lady of the State of Alaska, Mrs. Murkowski serves as a senior advisor to the Governor on many of the issues concerning the State and its citizens," Clark wrote in the July 13, 2004 memo. "In this capacity, Mrs. Murkowski participates in business meetings, discussions and conferences which requires Mrs. Murkowski to accompany the Governor to meetings and conferences held in other communities, states, and countries."

Gov. Murkowski added a handwritten explanation of his own: "As a general rule if Nancy doesn't go I don't go," the note says. "That's the way it was in the Senate for twenty-two years, and that's how it will be as long as I'm governor."

Perez said Nancy Murkowski was a close confidante to the governor and seemed more involved in his decision-making than some other first ladies. "They really were a working partnership," she said.

Clark said the governor's wife is "somebody he had bounced things off of for years."

"She didn't come to staff meetings, she didn't sit in on cabinet meetings, but she was a person, say on the airplane, he would ask her, 'What do you think about that?' " Clark said. "I don't want to create the impression it was some sort of formal role, but she was a person whose thinking he sought. ... It was important to him to have her on the airplane."

Clark said Mrs. Murkowski nearly always made some kind of official appearance during a trip, perhaps a visit to a school or attend a dinner with her husband. "We set up events for the first lady," he said. "There were just so many occasions where if we were to travel to Anchorage, (there would be) an event involving him and her."

Another advisory opinion from the attorney general's office, requested by the governor's office and issued in September 2004, said spouses of "administration officials" would violate the state's Executive Branch Ethics Act if they flew with the governor for free on state aircraft, at that time a King Air operated by the Department of Public Safety.

The attorney who authored that opinion was responding to a question by the governor's office about what would need to be done to allow such free travel for spouses of administration officials traveling with the governor. Her answer: Change the ethics act.

"... under current law, the Ethics Act precludes the spouses of administration officials from flying on the King Air unless the official reimburses the state the cost of a coach fair ticket for the spouse."

The opinion doesn't directly address the issue of whether the governor himself is such an "administration official," and Jones said he is not sure if it would apply to the governor and his wife. But, he noted, the Ethics Act covers all state employees, including the governor.

COST OF THE FLIGHTS

The cost of operating the turboprop King Air was about $589 an hour in 2000, according to a 2001 report by the Alaska Division of Legislative Audit. In comparison, the average cost of operating the Westwind II jet in 2006 was often more than $1,200 an hour for fuel, crew and parts, according to reports compiled by the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees use of the aircraft.

In a decision last fall, the APOC told Perez that she should bill the Murkowski campaign for the portion of trips devoted to political purposes. The APOC said to determine the charge by applying the campaign percentage to the value of a day-of-purchase first-class airplane fare. Perez said she arrived at the campaign percentage by talking to pilots, security officers and others who traveled with the governor, and by reviewing his calendar.

On a mid-June round trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks, for example, Perez concluded Murkowski had spent about 38 percent of his time on campaign business. The value of a walk-up first-class fare for that trip would have been $479.10, so Perez billed the campaign $184.27 for both the governor and his wife, or a total of $368.54.

The actual cost to the state of flying the West­wind to Fairbanks and back that month would have been about $2,363, according to the public safety figures for June 2006. Had the APOC chosen to apply the campaign percentage to the actual cost of flying the jet, the Murkowski campaign would have been billed more than $1,800 for the governor's and Mrs. Murkowski's travel.

All told, the campaign reimbursed the state for $6,512.14 for all 28 trips. Murkowski paid that and about $75,000 of other leftover campaign debt himself after the election, according to reports filed with the APOC.

Even though the calculations and travel reimbursement followed the APOC's direction, does the difference between what the campaign paid for the trips and the actual cost of flying the jet around the state amount to an improper state subsidy of a political campaign? Jones was asked.

"That's something we'd have to look at more closely in context," if state attorneys were asked, he said.



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