RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Travel documents recently released by the North Carolina Highway Patrol raise new questions about Governor Pat McCrory's use of state aircraft for travel to political events.
The Highway Patrol provided the documents on Friday, October 28 in response to a public records request submitted by On Your Side Investigates in early January.
WBTV filed a motion to intervene in a public records lawsuit seeking to compel the McCrory Administration's production of certain travel records - including documents from NCSHP - earlier in October, prior to the most recent production of travel records.
The records show McCrory occasionally uses state aircraft - a jet or twin-engine turboprop airplane - to flying to events hosted by the Republican Governors Association.
The State Human Resources Act allows for use of state resources for political purposes so long as taxpayers are reimbursed for the use of the resources, explained Elon Law School professor Elliot Engstrom.
"So, it's ok to use a state resource if you're going somewhere, as long as you reimburse the state the amount," he said.
The state budget manual says state funds may be used for up to half the cost of a trip that a state official—whether elected or appointed—takes if that trip includes both official and political business.
Records provided by the Governor's Office show the North Carolina Department of Transportation, who maintains the aircraft and bills for their use, show non-state groups are billed to use the state jet at $3,511 per hour. The turboprop airplanes bill at a rate of $3,039 per hour, records show.
Reimbursements don't add up
On Your Side Investigates used trip security forms provided by NCSHP, NCDOT flight logs and calendar entries provided by the Governor's Office to make a list of trips to RGA events for which McCrory used state aircraft.
Our review found McCrory took a total of at least six trips to RGA events using state aircraft. McCrory's method of transportation for at least one additional trip - to an RGA event held last summer in Aspen, CO - could not be determined because the Governor's Office redacted his entire calendar for the days of the trip and refused to provide any additional details about the travel.
Records that were provided by McCrory's office show he used state aircraft to attend the following events:
- August 19, 2014 trip to Philadelphia, PA for an RGA PhRMA Policy Panel & Reception
- September 22-23, 2014 trip to Chicago, IL for RGA Corporate Policy Summit
- November 18-21, 2014 trip to Boca Raton, FL for RGA Annual Conference
- February 19, 2015 trip to Washington, D.C. for RGA Winter Conference (coincides with NGA conference)
- February 22-23, 2015 back and forth between Washington, D.C. and Raleigh for RGA Winter Conference, Dean Smith’s funeral and NGA events
- February 22, 2016 trip from Washington, D.C. back to Raleigh for RGA Winter Conference
Flight logs, NCDOT bills and other calculations done by On Your Side Investigates (in two instances where a flight manifest or NCDOT bill was not provided, we researched the average flight time between the departure and arrival cities to determine the number of flight hours) show the six RGA trips taken by McCrory on state aircraft cost a total of $62,697.
A review of the RGA's itemized tax disclosures found that the group only reimbursed the North Carolina Department of Transportation $15,459 for use of state aircraft over three payments.
All three payments appear to coincide with trips by McCrory on state aircraft to RGA events but none of the payments cover the full cost of the plane's use.
For instance, McCrory flew the state-owned jet to Philadelphia, PA for an up-and-back trip on August 19, 2014. A flight manifest for the day's trips shows McCrory flew from Raleigh to Philadelphia that morning and then took the jet from Philadelphia to Concord, NC, where he and his security detail got off the plane before it flew back empty to Raleigh.
A note on the flight manifest for that day shows the RGA would be billed for half of the flight hours used that day - which tax records show
the RGA paid - but does not explain why taxpayers would pick up the tab for the other half.
Tax records filed by the RGA show the organization paid NCDOT $6,320 on September 4, 2014. The RGA's filing says the payment was for travel expenses but does not specify for whom or to where.
Another RGA trip taken by McCrory - to Washington, D.C. in February - cost $8,426.
A note on the flight record shows a non-state group was billed $2,139 for flight time but there is no record of the RGA paying that amount. The campaign finance report filed by McCrory's campaign for the first quarter 2016 also does not appear to include any reimbursement of flight expenses.
We sent multiple emails to an RGA spokesman requesting an explanation for the gap between the amount of total flight time used by McCrory to fly to and from RGA events and the amount of money reimbursed by the group. Jon Thompson, an RGA spokesman, originally said he would check their records and respond to our inquiry but never did.
Questions about ethics disclosures, too
As part of our review of the Governor's travel records, On Your Side Investigates also reviewed the list of trips listed by McCrory on his yearly statements of economic interest that groups outside of North Carolina paid for McCrory to attend.
Our review found six trips listed by McCrory with values that don't add up.
The ethics form requires filers to list the value of a scholarship to attend an event, which the form defines as "a gr ant-in-aid, either direct or indirect, to attend a conference, meeting, or similar event, including tuition, travel, lodging, meals, and other similar expenses."
Here is a summary of the trips that caught our eye:
- February 5, 2014 trip to Washington, D.C. for RGA breakfast. McCrory flew commercial to DC the day before and stayed the night. Listed the value of the trip as $240 on SEI.
- August 19, 2014 trip to Philadelphia, PA for RGA Healthcare Policy Luncheon. Listed value of the scholarship as $1,700 but tax records show McCrory’s office billed—and the RGA paid—$6,320 for McCrory’s use of the state jet.
- September 22-23, 2014 trip to Chicago, IL for RGA Corporate Policy Summit. Listed value of scholarship is $1,260 but tax records show RGA paid $3,753 in reimbursement to NCDOT near the date of the invoice for this flight.
- November 18-21, 2014 trip to Boca Raton, FL for RGA Annual Conference. Listed value of scholarship is $2,100 but McCrory flew state plane for a total of $10,028 worth of flight time. Unclear if RGA reimbursed for this trip.
- February 19, 22-23, 2015 trip to Washington, D.C. for RGA Winter Meeting/NGA meeting. Records show McCrory flew back to Raleigh to attend a memorial service for Dean Smith on February 22 and then flew back to DC that night to attend a dinner at the White House. McCrory then attended an RGA press conference the next day before flying back to Raleigh. The total value of the RGA’s portion of the scholarship is reported as $2,100 but McCrory used more than $22,000 worth of flight hours on state aircraft.
- April 25-27, 2015 trip to Los Angeles, CA for 18th Annual Milken Institute Global Conference. Lists value of scholarship at $200. A spokesman for McCrory’s office says his campaign split his commercial airfare to the event with his campaign, which is not required to be disclosed. State Treasurer Janet Cowell attended the same conference and valued her scholarship at $10,000. A spokesman for McCrory said the Milken Institute only paid for McCrory’s meals and reaffirmed the $200 scholarship value.
Josh Ellis, Communications Director for the Governor's Office, said McCrory complied with state law in filling out his required state ethics forms.
"We reported all events based upon the estimated values given to us by scholarship providers," Ellis said. "All bills have been appropriately paid in full in accordance with the law."