Politician flying private plane at taxpayers' expense

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Local 2 Investigates has discovered State Senator Kevin Eltife used a state aircraft a total of 26 times in 2011 and 2013 to fly from Austin to his home in Tyler when the legislative week ended.

The total cost to taxpayers was $28,731.

"Every dollar should be spent wisely. We get in the habit of saying, ‘Oh that's just pocket change,' and if the legislature gets in the habit of thinking that, suddenly it adds up to billions," said Peggy Venable, the Texas director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

Local 2 Investigates reviewed Texas Department of Transportation records for the state's private plane fleet. The planes are made available to state officials, employees or sponsored contractors traveling on official state business. Eltife did not violate that rule, according to TxDOT.

Eltife was often the only passenger on the small prop plane with only a handful of seats. The plane and its pilots are based in Austin, so after flying Eltife to Tyler the planes often flew back to Austin without any passengers on aboard.

Eltife is the only elected official to use the private plane to get home frequently.

The cost is raising questions from some taxpayer watchdogs.

"I don't think it's the responsibility of the state to fly, in a private plane, any senator to and from their home district, on any kind of regular basis. I don't think that's what the plane is really for," Venable said. "Every public dollar should be spent as wisely as we spend our own dollars."

In a forum at University of Texas at Tyler in 2012, Eltife, a Republican, talked about the need to conserve taxpayer money.

"We do not have the money we used to have and it's not going to get better anytime soon," he said. "We're going to have to live within our means."

The flights cost a total cost of $60,573. Eltife reimbursed the state using non-taxpayer generated funds from campaign money for about half of each trip, but taxpayers picked up the remaining cost.

"It's not a good use of taxpayer money," Daniel Espindola, of Tyler, said. Espindola lives in Eltife's senate district. "The drive is not that bad. I've made it myself from Austin over here. You don't need to use a private jet or taxpayer money to do so."

Eltife told Local 2 Investigates' Jace Larson that he only uses the plane when he cannot fly commercial. He also pointed out that the state already owns the airplanes and pays pilots' salaries regardless of when they fly. Eltife acknowledged his flights do cost taxpayers fuel and maintenance.

His chief of staff explained the senator's point of view.

"Let's say he is going home for the weekend, but we don't know if he will be able to leave Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, Friday morning or Friday afternoon. Commercial air service to and from Tyler/Austin is limited; there are only a few flights a day on American and Continental, so scheduling is often difficult and sometimes the flights are full," Eltife's Chief of Staff Cheryl Vanek wrote in an email to Local 2. "The flights go through Dallas or Houston and there is small commuter jet for the Tyler leg, which tends to get full even if a larger plane to Dallas or Houston has seats."

The average cost for flights Eltife took averaged about $2,329. Eltife reimbursed the state for about half of each flight. Eltife pointed out that of the remaining amount, the state would have to pay $500-$600 for a last minute flight on a commercial airliner.

See estimated costs when someone uses the state's private fleet to travel elsewhere.

"The reason he chooses to reimburse the state for half of the cost is because he realizes this service is more expensive than commercial air (although booking on American or Continental at the last minute is pretty expensive as well)," Vanek wrote.

Other state lawmakers use commercial air service or drive to and from Austin during the state's legislative sessions, according to a small survey done by Local 2 of Texas lawmakers.

Eltife said he has flown on a friend's private plane from Tyler to Austin, but usually takes commercial air service because the beginning of the legislative week is predictable and tickets can be purchased in advance.

What do you think about this story? Tweet @JaceLarson using #PrivatePlane.

Have a tip about government spending? Email investigative reporter Jace Larson at jlarson@kprc.com or call him at 832-493-3951.

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