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Governor stays firm on helicopter use

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Gov. Susana Martinez is standing her ground when it comes to use of a State Police helicopter for the first leg of a political trip to Texas, saying no law was broken in use of the helicopter and dismissing a suggestion to reimburse the state for the cost of the flight.

Martinez used the $6.7 million helicopter in November 2011 to fly from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, where she boarded a commercial airplane flight to Houston to attend fundraisers for the Republican Governors Association.

The Attorney General’s Office said last week that the helicopter use provided a personal or political benefit to the governor, but the office also said there was “a plausible official purpose” for the use and no law was broken.

In response, Martinez reiterated what a spokesman has previously said: that use of the helicopter was appropriate because it allowed the governor to stay longer at a state Board of Finance meeting at the Capitol, which had run behind schedule.

The governor, by state law, is president of the Board of Finance, which has general supervision of the state’s fiscal affairs, and governors have traditionally attended board meetings.

As for the Board of Finance meeting on the day of the helicopter flight, Martinez said last week, “Some very important issues were coming up that involved UNM that I needed to stay at, but it wasn’t moving fast enough.”

Minutes from the Board of Finance meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, show that a financial presentation by David Schmidly, then president of the University of New Mexico, ended at least two hours before Martinez took the helicopter to Albuquerque.

Here is what the minutes show:

  • Martinez left the meeting at 1:10 p.m., immediately after Schmidly’s presentation. (She then attended an event at the New Mexico National Guard headquarters just south of Santa Fe.)
  • The governor returned to the Board of Finance meeting at 2:15 p.m., and stayed for most of a discussion about a proposed new lease for The Downs at Albuquerque to operate a horse-racing track and casino at the state fairgrounds. (The awarding of the lease to The Downs has become one of the most controversial actions of the Martinez administration.)
  • Martinez left the meeting for a second and final time at 3:15 p.m., about 20 minutes before the meeting adjourned.

The governor also said this last week about the helicopter use:

“No law was broken and the attorney general has confirmed that no law was broken. State Police have to transport me by law everywhere I go. So even when I go from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, they have to transport me there … by whichever means is necessary.”

Here is what state law says:

“The New Mexico state police shall provide security and protection for the governor, and security and protection for the governor’s family. The extent and manner in which the security is provided shall be determined by the governor and the chief of the New Mexico state police.”

As a security measure, a State Police detail provides ground transportation for the governor whether she is on official business or on personal or political business. That is considered an official use of government resources.

However, use of government aircraft to transport the governor for personal or political business hasn’t historically been considered an official use. State Police officers do accompany the governor on air flights.

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.

It took the helicopter about an hour to fly Martinez to Albuquerque, then return to Santa Fe. The hourly operating cost of the aircraft is about $800.

In a review of the helicopter use, R. David Pederson, general counsel to Attorney General Gary King, wrote:

“It would seem highly appropriate for the Governor, her campaign or the Republican Governors Association to reimburse the State for the $800 cost in using the helicopter which was a convenience afforded her that would not be available to the average citizen or public official, even if no law was broken.”

Martinez said she doesn’t plan to make a reimbursement.

For the record, Pederson’s boss, Attorney General King, is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor; Martinez, seeking re-election to a four-year term, is the presumptive Republican nominee for the November election.

ProgressNow New Mexico, a liberal group, requested the AG’s review of the governor’s helicopter use after I reported on it last fall.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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