SANTA FE (KRQE) - Welcome aboard New Mexico's most unusual airline. Planes are unmarked. There's no schedule. No boarding passes. Flight plans are secret. Travel costs are hidden.
And who are the mysterious passengers? Is it a CIA covert operation? No. Its New Mexico's fleet of state owned aircraft, for the exclusive use of government officials.
For example, in 2007 the University of New Mexico's newly hired basketball coach, Steve Alford, met reporters for the first time at a news conference held at the Albuquerque Sunport. However, no one seemed to notice how Alford and his family actually got there.
UNM arranged for them to be picked up from their Iowa home, in style, aboard the state's private jet. The price tag for the roundtrip meet and greet: $25,612.
New Mexico's aircraft fleet includes two turboprops--an Aero Commander and a King Air--and a Citation jet. Any government official can hop aboard. The tab is picked up by taxpayers.
However, KRQE News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker found the actual costs of individual flights are routinely hidden from public view.
Over the past four years the public has shelled out more than $1.6 million to ferry the political elite hither and yon.
Like state transportation commissioners. The News 13 investigation found those New Mexico Department of Transportation political appointees routinely use state airplanes as expensive taxicabs to shuttle them to meetings with no regard to costs.
Consider Oct. 15, 2008, and a scheduled meeting in Shiprock. The DOT dispatched the state jet to pick up Commissioner John Hummer in Las Cruces. Then it headed to Hobbs for Commissioner Johnny Cope. Next onto Las Vegas for Commissioner Jim Franken. And then back to Santa Fe so Commissioner Román Maez could climb abroad.
Next stop Albuquerque for Commissioner Norman Assed and finally onto Shiprock for the one-day meeting. The cross-country air taxi set back taxpayers $11,601. The next day state aircraft flew the commissioners back to their homes for an additional $11,184.
And the next month taxpayers shelled out $20,493 to shuttle commissioners Maez, Cope, Assed and Franken by private jet to a meeting in Truth or Consequences.
News 13 found over the last four years the commissioners charged the public almost $685,000 for state airplane flights to routine meetings.
"I believe use of the airplane is essential to the Department of Transportation meeting its mission," state Transportation Secretary Gary Girón told News 13.
Highway commissioners are appointed by the governor and are not state employees. Sen. John Arthur Smith is chair of the senate finance committee.
"From the commissioners' perspective, that's a great convenience so you can attend the meetings," state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said. "From the taxpayers standpoint it's a waste of money, and it's an abuse of dollars."
For Commissioner Franken, however, the flights are a cost-efficient use of the state aircraft.
"Absolutely," Franken said in an interview. "The benefit that this commission provides to the state, I think. More than justifies it."
State aircraft usage must be efficient and cost-effective, and aircraft regulations require a minimum of three passengers on any flight unless there is written justification. That directive is routinely ignored by highway commissioners. And the written justification? There isn't any.
And no one violated it more than commission Chair Johnny Cope. For example:
- June 2007: Cope ordered the jet to fly him from his home in Hobbs to Santa Fe for a meeting. Taxpayers got stuck with the $7131 tab.
- February 2008: The state jet flew Commissioner Hummer to a one-day meeting in Santa Fe and charged the public $6117.
- Oct. 24 2007: The jet picked up Hummer in Las Cruces, Cope in Hobbs and flew them to Santa Fe. Hours later the state jet airlifted Hummer back home to Las Cruces and then returned to Santa Fe to pick up Cope and take him home to Hobbs. The day long flight odyssey cost $11,299.
- Cope's tab for airplane travel to meetings in the last four years: $241,205.
So why should taxpayers foot the bill for Cope to fly to meetings in the state airplane?
"Really and truly that's what the silver lining is, is to get out in the rural communities and take government to the people," Cope told News 13. "And I think that very well justifies the cost of the plane.
"You know my time is worth a lot of money. And I can't put it any other way."
John Hummer's bill for state plane usage in the last four years: $105,421.
"We are not employees. We are not paid. We don't have a salary," Hummer said. "We have our own personal businesses and our personal lives and we donate our time and we commit our time to the state.
"I truly believe the cost is greater if we did not have this service available to the commission to go to these communities."
Still, that's not an argument bought into by Sen. Smith.
"The bottom line is, when a commissioner is appointed,