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The Guv's Friendly Skies

By Jeff Jones
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Politics Writer
    From payment rules to gift bans, new federal and state laws have attempted to clamp down on public officials and candidates accepting gifts and taking cheap flights on private aircraft.
    But it appears none of those new restrictions applies to a recent trip Gov. Bill Richardson made to Acapulco, Mexico, aboard an Albuquerque law firm's executive jet.
    Although Richardson's presidential campaign wouldn't confirm the destination, it did confirm the governor made a brief, personal trip to see his mother and sister, who live in Mexico City and have a family vacation home in Acapulco.
    "No campaign funds were used for this trip," presidential campaign spokesman Tom Reynolds said in an e-mail to the Journal on Friday. "Governor Richardson has reimbursed the travel provider from his personal funds."
    But Reynolds declined to say how much.
    The cost to charter a similar plane for the trip would have been around $20,000— figured at the rate candidates for federal office are required under new rules to shell out for campaign-related travel when they fly on private jets.
    The pilot for the Branch Law Firm Aviation jet, who said earlier last week there had been no reimbursement yet, confirmed Friday that a payment had been received.
    When asked how much Richardson paid, pilot Doug Leffler said, "No comment."
    Richardson's spokesman emphasized the trip was unrelated to his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and that no campaign dollars were spent. Therefore, the full-price charter rule governing federal campaigns doesn't apply.
    What about the state's restrictions on gifts to public officials— which Richardson signed into law earlier this year with considerable fanfare?
    Would it prevent the law firm from hauling the governor to Mexico for free or at a reduced price— such as the cost of a first-class airline ticket as allowed under the old federal rule?
    Apparently not, because the Branch firm would not appear to be a "restricted donor" covered by the new gift ban, which limits gifts to $250.
    One definition of a restricted donor is someone seeking to do business with a state agency that employs the public official receiving the gift.
    If the state gift ban applied, the governor arguably would have had to pay the same full $20,000 or so that he would have had to pay as a federal candidate on campaign business.
    While not officially confirming who took the governor to Acapulco, Reynolds said "no one considered a restricted donor has provided any kind of transportation for the governor without being properly reimbursed."
    The Attorney General's Office said the Branch firm wouldn't fit the definition of a restricted donor based on information provided by the Journal.
    The firm does some business with the state, but lawyer Turner Branch said last week his firm has no contracts with the Governor's Office.
    "I don't have a contract with the governor— and I've never asked for one," said Branch, a past Richardson contributor and supporter. "I don't have any personal investment with the governor or anything like that."
    The head of a Richardson-created ethics task force that recommended the state gift ban said last week his group never discussed narrowing the measure to its present form.
    "I'm a little surprised to hear this," said former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, co-chairman of the task force. "Our intent, very simply, was to say, '$250— that's it.' ''
Flying solo
    Flight-tracking data show the Branch British Aerospace executive jet lifted off from Albuquerque International Sunport on the morning of Nov. 17. It made a brief stop in Santa Fe and then headed to General Juan N. Alvarez International Airport outside Acapulco. The jet returned to Albuquerque the following evening.
    Leffler, the Branch Law Firm Aviation pilot, said Richardson flew unaccompanied.
    The Richardson presidential campaign schedule listed "No Public Events Scheduled" for him that weekend, and he was back on the campaign trail in New Hampshire the following Monday.
    Branch on at least two occasions has provided campaign-related travel to the Richardson presidential camp. Richardson paid for that travel with campaign-fund dollars and listed the amounts in required Federal Election Commission finance reports available to the public.
    Reynolds told the Journal that, since the trip was strictly personal, it "does not require any disclosure." However, he also said that, "Everything that needs to be disclosed will be."
    Leffler said he doesn't ask whether Richardson is flying for campaign business or personal reasons.
    "We don't ask what business he's on," Leffler said.
    Turner Branch last week said he hadn't talked to the governor about the Acapulco trip.
    Before mid-September, presidential candidates who flew corporate for campaign-related trips were required to reimburse only the cost of a commercial plane ticket— a far cry from the actual cost of an executive-jet trip.
    A law signed by President Bush on Sept. 14 now requires candidates to pay the cost of a comparable charter-jet trip when they make campaign trips on private jets.
Gift ban plan
    Richardson's ethics task force recommended a limit on public officials accepting gifts.
    Sen. John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill in the 2007 legislative session capping the value of gifts at $250, with that limit ratcheting down to $100 when the Legislature is in session.
    By the time the gift ban passed the Legislature and reached Richardson's desk, the $100 provision had been stripped out— and the scope of the bill had been narrowed to apply only to gifts from "restricted donors."
    They include lobbyists and people seeking to do business with— or have a regulatory matter pending with— state agencies in which the person receiving the gift works or has authority.
    The new law "sets clear limits on gifts to state officials, candidates and their families," a Governor's Office news release said at the time Richardson signed the measure in April.
    Richardson added, "Public officers and employees must protect the public trust and use their office only to advance the public interest."
    Grubesic last week said the law as signed leaves plenty of gray area for state officials to "dance around in."
    "That was the difficulty in crafting the legislation— because everyone was so reluctant to make it work. They wanted to make it as toothless as possible," said Grubesic, who in October announced he will not seek re-election in 2008.
    "The reality of getting something passed that is going to be tight and is going to be effective? It's never going to happen," Grubesic added. "The fox is guarding the henhouse."