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Governor defends use of state airplane

Schematics of the governor's plane. (KOKH)

Responding to what it calls “factual errors” in FOX 25’s reporting, the Governor’s office said no laws were broken when members of the first family flew in the state-owned aircraft.

The original story, found here, reported what FOX 25 found in a more than 8,000-page response to an Open Records Request. The request was made in 2015 and we received the records nearly two-and-a-half years later. The governor’s spokesperson said he was not given enough time to respond to our questions about the flights. However, the office was contacted and the request was acknowledged in the morning before the story was written and aired.

The state of Oklahoma has a special aircraft that is reserved for use by the governor and records obtained by FOX 25 show that the governor’s family sometimes travels on the plane even if she is not on board.

The center of the concerns raised by the governor’s office staff are related to flights from the governor’s lake house to the metro that FOX 25 reported included the governor’s grown children.

FOX 25 reported:

“After reviewing the emails, FOX 25 found references to use of the state’s aircraft to take family members to Grand Lake where Fallin has another home. In one email from 2013 a state trooper asks if “the "lake" is confirmed for Friday” when talking about the upcoming flight.

Another staff member confirms that the state's King Air 350 airplane will be dropping the governor off at her lake house in Northeastern Oklahoma on her way back from an out-of-state trip. The emails indicate the governor’s daughter, accompanied by one staff member, would be ferried back to the city on the private plane.”

In the email citing factual errors in our reporting, Governor Mary Fallin’s spokesman Michael McNutt sent this statement:

In September 2013, the governor and a member of her family were flown from New York where the governor spoke at a higher education summit to an airport near the governor’s lake house in northeastern Oklahoma. A gubernatorial staff member and a member of the governor’s security team had to return to Oklahoma City, and the pilots flew the airplane to an Oklahoma Highway Patrol hangar at the Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, where it is housed. A family member went along on that flight. That is perfectly permissible because the flight to Norman was scheduled and at least one member of the governor’s staff was on the airplane. In other words, the family member was not the only one on the airplane, and the purpose of the flight was to return the governor’s staff to Oklahoma City and the airplane to its hangar in Norman. It was not a special flight.

The FOX 25 story did not include any allegation the activity was against the law, it only reported what was in the documents provided by the Governor’s office. The report also focused on another flight from Grand Lake to Norman.

According to operation costs listed on the website Aircraft Cost Calculator, it costs taxpayers $1,300 an hour to operate the state’s King Air 350. The website advertises itself as “aviation's most real-world operating cost application.”

The governor’s office disputes the website’s estimates. The office says the Department of Public Safety told them it only costs $800 an hour to operate the airplane.

The earlier FOX 25 report about the second flight said:

“Another flight manifest from December of 2015 shows the governor, her husband and their security detail being dropped off at Grand Lake, again after another out-of-state trip, but two of the couple's children were to be taxied back to Norman on the $1,300 an hour taxpayer-funded flight.”

In his emailed response that came days after FOX 25 first requested a comment for the story, McNutt wrote:

On Jan. 1, 2016, after the governor represented the state when the University of Oklahoma played at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the governor and members of her family were flown to an airport near the governor’s lake house in northeastern Oklahoma. One family member and a member of the governor’s security team – not “two of the couple’s children” went on the scheduled flight to the OHP hangar in Norman. Again, no regulation was violated because the flight was scheduled and a member of the governor’s security team had to be returned to Oklahoma City. It was not a special flight.

It should be noted the email FOX 25 cited was dated December 23, 2015. In that email, a state trooper who appears in the records to be a member of the governor’s security detail responded to the manifest that was emailed to him. “I will be flying back commercial,” the trooper wrote. The flight manifest, which lists another trooper traveling to the lake, specifically notes only Adam and Elizabeth Christensen on the return flight to Norman.

In the past, the governor’s office and the Department of Public Safety have declined to name members of the governor’s security detail due to security concerns.

FOX 25’s report did not allege any law or regulation was violated. Our questions to the governor’s office was about the cost of using the state aircraft for trips to a private residence.

As you reported, there were numerous flights in which the governor’s daughter accompanied the governor on flights across the state. The governor was a passenger on each of those trips, so no violation occurred because the Oklahoma Highway Patrol is required to provide transportation for the governor. Title 47, Chapter 2, Article 1, Section 2-101 (b) of the Oklahoma Statutes states that “the Commissioner of Public Safety shall provide personal security and protection, transportation, and communications capabilities for the Governor, the Governor’s immediate family …”

The governor’s office also took issue with the report referencing the airplane as a “private plane.” The office said the plane is not for the governor’s exclusive use, but the governor does have priority in the use of the airplane.

The governor’s office said it is not a “private plane.”

It should be noted that it is not possible to book a flight on the same aircraft as a member of the public and it is only for use by state officials when they do not to fly on the commercial airlines.

FOX 25 also asked the governor’s office about the use of the state aircraft for travel to the lake house during her time in office. According to the travel calculator on the OMES website, a round trip between Oklahoma City and Grand Lake using the largest SUV in the state’s fleet would cost around $400, or just $174 for mileage reimbursement if traveling by private vehicle.

In response to this inquiry, McNutt wrote, “The governor’s practice is not to use the state’s airplane specifically for her personal use. A search of DPS flight records during the past seven years shows the state airplane made seven trips to airports near the governor’s lake house in northeast Oklahoma either to take the governor there or to pick her up. Trips were either returning from or heading to an event in which the governor represented the state in an official capacity.”

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