ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gov. Susana Martinez used a State Police helicopter to fly to Albuquerque so she could catch a commercial flight to Houston for political fundraisers.
Martinez’s office says the use of the helicopter was appropriate. You be the judge.
The day of the flight, Nov. 15, 2011, was a Tuesday. The state Board of Finance met at 9:10 a.m. in the Cabinet Room in the Governor’s Office. Martinez, who chairs the board, arrived at 9:20, according to minutes of the meeting.
The governor left the meeting at 1:10 p.m. to attend an event at the New Mexico National Guard headquarters just outside of Santa Fe, returned to the Board of Finance at 2:15, then left again at 3:15, about 20 minutes before the meeting adjourned.
Because the Board of Finance meeting ran longer than usual, Martinez was running late for a commercial flight from Albuquerque to Houston for meetings related to the Republican Governors Association, according to Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor.
So, the State Police helicopter was summoned to fly the governor to Albuquerque.
Martinez traveled to Houston to attend a series of private fundraisers to benefit the Republican Governors Association, according to a story in the Journal at the time. The association paid for the commercial flight and other travel expenses.
The RGA is a registered political organization that works to get GOP gubernatorial candidates elected across the country. The association was Martinez’s largest contributor during the 2010 campaign, donating more than $1.3 million.
The State Police helicopter is a twin-engine, eight-seat Agusta S.p.A. with a maximum speed of about 180 mph. It was purchased in 2010 for $6.7 million.
It took about an hour to fly Martinez to Albuquerque, then return to Santa Fe. The hourly operating cost of the helicopter is about $800. The helicopter also is used by the State Police for law enforcement activities, and search and rescue.
Under the state Governmental Conduct Act, public officers are required to “use the powers and resources of public office only to advance the public interest.” The language is repeated in Martinez’s Code of Conduct for all employees under the Governor’s Office.
The question is whether Martinez’s use of the helicopter was in the public interest or in her political interest. Her spokesman Knell says it was the former.
“She took the aircraft in order to be able to attend the Board of Finance, which lasted way longer than normal,” Knell said in an email. “It would have been by state car, if the meeting hadn’t gone so long.”
For security reasons, a State Police vehicle is provided to the governor whether on public, political or personal business.
The flight log for the helicopter flight shows the aircraft took off from Santa Fe Municipal Airport and returned there, making three landings during the trip.
Knell refused to say where Martinez boarded the helicopter – for example, at the airport or the Governor’s Mansion. He said the only other passenger was a member of the governor’s State Police security detail.
You might recall that, during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Martinez criticized the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson for its purchase and use of a $5.5 million state jet.
Martinez sold the Cessna jet her first year as governor and has sparingly used the remaining state aircraft.
State Police records that I recently obtained show Martinez has used the agency’s helicopter two other times, in July 2011 to attend briefings on wildfires in Hondo and Los Alamos, and in December 2012 to attend a welcome home ceremony for National Guard troops in Las Cruces.
Knell said all of Martinez’s uses of the helicopter have been “consistent with what we’ve said before – that (aircraft’s) used in emergency situations or when her schedule simply won’t easily accommodate traveling in any other way.”
The General Services Department also has a Beechcraft King Air turboprop airplane available for use by the governor and other agencies, and Martinez has used the plane for 17 trips since taking office in January 2011, according to records of the Aviation Services Bureau.
At least six of the trips were in response to forest fires around the state, the reports show.
Martinez also has used the King Air to travel to make a speech, announce jobs, sign legislation into law, greet President Barack Obama, dedicate a building, meet with other border governors and attend a memorial service for Arizona firefighters.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.