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Georgia taxpayers billed $12,000 for Gov. Nathan Deal's press flight to Augusta

Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 9:33 PM
Last updated Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 2:04 AM
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Two weeks after he was widely criticized for failing to prepare Atlanta for snow, Gov. Nathan Deal spent more than $12,000 in taxpayer money to fly members of the media with him to Augusta in a separate helicopter to survey ice damage, according to government documents obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.

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Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver (left) greets Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal at Daniel Field on Feb. 13.  FILE
FILE
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver (left) greets Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal at Daniel Field on Feb. 13.

The bulk of the funds used for the Feb. 13 trip – $11,180 – paid for the 417 gallons of fuel the Georgia National Guard needed to transport the seven Atlanta journalists and 200 pounds of gear they brought to Augusta, according to a reimbursement request filed by the Department of the Army.

An additional $920 was billed to the state to pay the two crew chiefs and two pilots commissioned to fly the Black Hawk helicopter at the request of Brian Robinson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications.

Deal flew in a six-seater owned by the state Department of Public Safety that required 140 gallons of fuel and cost taxpayers $630 to transport him, a pilot and four staff members, including the state chief operating officer and budget director. The Augusta Chronicle attempted to get a seat on the governor’s flight once it arrived but was told there was no room.

Robinson defended the use of taxpayer funds for the 3-hour roundtrip flight, saying that “one of the most important parts of the government’s response in an emergency situation is communicating with the people of Georgia.”

State Democrats immediately seized on the trip to challenge Deal’s use of taxpayer funds for what they call a public relations mission after being blasted for how he handled the Jan. 28 snowstorm that stranded thousands of people on highways and in schools.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay $12,000 for the governor trying to rehabilitate his image through increased exposure,” said Vincent Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the state Senate. “It’s not right and the money should be reimbursed by the governor’s campaign.”

Robinson said the purpose of the Augusta trip was not to restore credibility to Deal’s office, which accepted much of the blame for Atlanta’s snow-induced traffic jam, but to tour the ice damage along the Interstate 20 corridor.

He called coverage of the ice storm that hit Augusta harder than any area in Georgia as “one of statewide import” that required the attention of the media with the “greatest reach possible.”

Aboard the flight were Maj. Gen. Jim Butterworth of the Georgia National Guard, and representatives from The Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and each of the capital’s four major TV stations, one of which had a radio correspondent fly on the media helicopter to feed sound to a statewide network.

“This was a state of emergency and we used all mediums available to us to communicate with the people of the state,” Robinson said. “We had a duty to get out information and part of that was educating people on the damage the ice had brought to a large swath of the state.”

Fort agreed keeping the people informed is top priority but questioned whether the flight was necessary to achieve it.

Interstate 20 was passable the day of the flight and the media helicopter stayed on the Daniel Field tarmac as Deal took Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross on an aerial tour surveying local damage.

“For the governor to travel with personnel is one thing, but to pay $12,000 for the media to fly with him, when there is no question of transparency or doubt that the event will be covered by the Augusta media, is concerning,” Fort said.

In e-mails obtained by The Chronicle from the governor’s office, Robinson originally planned to have one station provide “pool coverage” of the tour, but after other networks asked why they were not invited, he bumped two passengers to allow all Atlanta TV stations on board. Robinson also said the governor’s photographer rode on the flight to share video and photographs with Augusta and Atlanta media.

“I’m sorry I can’t accommodate everyone,” Robinson replied to one network. “No media will be flying with the governor himself. We’ll have a (news conference) that you can get from your affiliate there.”

Other options that would not have cost taxpayers were available to the governor’s office if it wanted to tour storm damage with media.

Col. Mark McDonough, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said aerial surveillance is a budgeted extension of his office’s law enforcement duties. He said his department has 11 aircraft, 15 pilots and six hangar facilities in Augusta, Gainesville, Reidsville, Albany, Perry and Kennesaw that can accommodate up to 3,100 hours of emergency surveillance.

The governor could have used one of those aircraft and taken media with him.

The unloaded UH-60 Black Hawk has a maximum seating capacity of 11 passengers, not counting the aircraft’s two crew chiefs and two pilots.

The Georgia National Guard charged the governor’s office the state, active-duty emergency rate. If the flight was a non-emergency, it could have cost an additional $1,100.

“Our funds are for training aircraft pilots in preparation for deployment,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Lesnieski, a spokesman for the Georgia National Guard. “Anytime we do anything that is outside our normal operations, we have to charge. Otherwise, it eats into our ability to conduct training.”

The practice of the media accepting gifts is a “gray area” in journalism ethics, said Dr. Keith Herndon, a professor of media ethics in the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia.

Herndon said some media outlets strictly forbid personnel from accepting forms of gratuity, while others allow staff to receive nominal amounts of gifts.

“In and of itself, using government equipment would not be necessarily an ethical violation, but in many cases, networks reimburse for such costs,” Herndon said. “It’s a general rule that if you are using public resources and needed use of those resources for press coverage of the governor, then yes, the ethical thing to do would be to reimburse the taxpayers.”

None of the four TV stations on the flight – WSB, WXIA, WGCL and WAGA – returned phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on whether they offered to pay for their seats. Erin White, senior media relations manager for The Associated Press, said in an e-mail that it is routine practice for public officials and the military to grant press access in such situations.

“News gathering organizations, such as the AP, seek to observe the extent of damage so they can inform the public,” she said.

Charles Gay, the deputy managing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the newspaper has not offered to reimburse the governor’s office, nor does it see the flight as a breach of its ethics policy.

“This wasn’t a trip that was necessarily saving the AJC money,” Gay said. “We accompany on trips to disaster scenes as part of our reporting. If we were going to accompany the governor to Augusta, the only way to go was with him.”

Comments (18) Add comment
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Butterman
3682
Points
Butterman 02/26/14 - 01:16 am
3
9
Sprinkles
Unpublished

Yay! Deke got to ride in a whirley bird and take pictures of the snow. I hope the Governor took him out for some ice cream afterward and he got sprinkles.

rebellious
21293
Points
rebellious 02/26/14 - 02:52 am
11
4
Danged

If you do, danged if you dont. $12,000 is a drip in the ocean. And besides, the money went from one gumment pocket to another. Nothing to see here, folks! Move along. Embedded in the article are the sour grapes of a newspaper scorned. It's not nice to shun Mr. Morris. Hell hath no fury.....

Butterman
3682
Points
Butterman 02/26/14 - 03:11 am
5
4
Sour Grapes
Unpublished

May have something to do with it since the Chronicle was not invited to tag along. But was this media junket really necessary? I don't think so. This was just campaign PR at taxpayers expense. I20 was passable. It was an Ice storm not a flood. Just what was the Governor supposed to see from a helicopter?

ColCo
819
Points
ColCo 02/26/14 - 06:51 am
4
5
Comes back to GRU

Morris hates Azziz, Deal likes Azziz, Morris hates Deal. The Civil War is over and so is the battle for GRU. Be glad the Governor is willing to continue to invest in Augusta, he could easily put the dollars somewhere else.

Willie Loman
267
Points
Willie Loman 02/26/14 - 07:06 am
7
3
Editorial, not news.

I think this article belongs in the opinion section. Not newsworthy.

nocnoc
44724
Points
nocnoc 02/26/14 - 07:59 am
11
2
I am no fan of Gov. Deal, but in this case he did right.

The media is the public's communications arm in emergencies.

It is the part of the team that spreads the word during emergencies on what has happened, Where is happen worst, what is happening to fix and when it will be fixed.

While I am sure this was in part an Political Image Recovery Trip for the Atlanta screw up and the coming re-election.

It also provided 100's of 1,000's of CSRA residents with some comfort, in knowing ARC wasn't doing it all by themselves and that something was being done on a State and National levels.

Spending $12,000, to reassure the public during an Declared Emergency is Chump Change. Considering CSRA Damage & Cleanup estimates are running around $50+ Million.

Some Questions:
So did the Local Media attending these escorted News Briefing and chauffeured tour with the Governor refuse at anytime on the grounds of the cost to the public?

So are we hearing those media members indulged in the provided services and knowing were wasting our $$$$, or did they see it as a EMS News Briefing and tour?

I would hate to think that our media would enjoy the free ride then whine about it being free also. Maybe they did not get enough cheese.

BTW:
Everyone does remember the roads were less than ideal, so the Governor actually provided safe travel for the New Media to get the word out also?

Rebellious said in a lot less words

Darned if you do
Darned If you don't.

nocnoc
44724
Points
nocnoc 02/26/14 - 08:04 am
4
3
BTW:

Maybe our local media could pick up the cost in the spirit of doing a public service for the CSRA?

seenitB4
90625
Points
seenitB4 02/26/14 - 08:24 am
7
4
Rebel is right

The Gov did the right thing...some would have fussed if he hadn't shown up...and maybe a little pr was thrown in the mix---that is part of politics.

corgimom
33892
Points
corgimom 02/26/14 - 09:08 am
3
7
This is a non-story.

This is a non-story.

Marinerman1
5043
Points
Marinerman1 02/26/14 - 09:40 am
2
2
Governor Did Right Thing

While Governor Deal was here, he did meet with both ARC and Columbia County EMA Directors. He did add additional counties to the State declared disaster list. I'm not completely sold on the media part though. Back in the day, both WSB and WXIA had their own Jet Rangers. Both were kept @ PDK. I probably would've drawn straws for ONE Atlanta station, and then made sure that local Augusta television stations had some access. And add the State media personnel.

Jake
32834
Points
Jake 02/26/14 - 11:17 am
0
0
Only $12 grand?

Last year my son was flown by a chopper from a ski resort to a Sacramento hospital 60 miles away for doing a face plant. Cost? That ride cost a whopping $34 grand. Thank goodness for Kaiser Health Insurance, it didn't cost us any additional money. The whole episode was a total waste of money, in my opinion. I wasn't there to witness the accident so my wife was making the decisions (groan).

bright idea
851
Points
bright idea 02/26/14 - 11:25 am
3
3
Vincent Fort

A Democrat grandstanding over $12,000. Imagine that!

LillyfromtheMills
13885
Points
LillyfromtheMills 02/26/14 - 12:18 pm
0
0
Jake

Ouch!

Lee Benedict
1625
Points
Lee Benedict 02/26/14 - 02:26 pm
0
0
Um, Nathan...

we have media people in Augusta, Columbia County, and probably the rest of the CSRA, and if I were a betting person, I'd venture to guess and make the claim that they have access to a camera, video equipment, and at least three computers with Internet access in order to spread the word.

Darby
26830
Points
Darby 02/26/14 - 04:39 pm
2
0
"Just what was the Governor supposed to see from a helicopter?"

Answer... Infinitely more than he or anyone else could see at ground level.

Darby
26830
Points
Darby 02/26/14 - 04:48 pm
2
1
And why, pray tell, are we not hearing any of our

liberal/progressive/socialist friends commenting on the tens of millions of $$$$$ that Barry OzBama has spent and continues to spend (read waste) on personal pleasure trips for himself and Michele?

$12,000 is pocket change and petty cash, particularly when charges of a "public relations" boondoggle are found in the eye of the beholder and can in NO WAY be substantiated.

If such charges can be proven, then let the ethics probe begin! No....??? Thought not.

ralphinga
1353
Points
ralphinga 02/26/14 - 06:07 pm
0
0
Sour Grapes

I think that the Chronicle could have rented its own aircraft .... Oh, they would not have been in on the free ride with the Governor! Now I understand why this is a story.

Connor Threlkeld
881
Points
Connor Threlkeld 02/26/14 - 07:13 pm
0
1
So there's no concern that

So there's no concern that the state paid $12,000 to fly the Atlanta media into town? They couldn't have driven two hours into town and bummed a ride on the Governor's chopper while he was on the ground? Or used the traditional pool arrangement where one person goes up in the air and shares photos and video with the rest of the media?

Were the roads too bad to drive on? We have local media that could have shared content with Atlanta media. Problem solved.

The Chronicle could have rented its own chopper, sure. It's what we do in other situations that require aerial photos. But so could the AJC and the TV stations. The concern is less that we didn't have a seat, it's that taxpayers paid for Atlanta media to have a seat. $630 for the Governor, sure. But $12,000 for the press?

Darby
26830
Points
Darby 02/27/14 - 12:53 pm
1
0
"So there's no concern

that the state paid $12,000 to fly the Atlanta media into town?"

.
Not really...

NrthAugustaSam
491
Points
NrthAugustaSam 02/28/14 - 12:54 pm
0
1
Flying Idiots

"The Three Stooges" go flying! How nice!!!

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