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.
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.”