SANTA FE (KRQE) - Who are these guys? They are not elected officials or government employees, but they are top passengers on New Mexico's most exclusive airline.
It's New Mexico's fleet of state-owned aircraft, but not just anybody can hop aboard.
These planes are for top government officials only. Like state transportation commissioners who use state aircraft like their own personal taxi service.
Commissioners Johnny Cope, John Hummer, Jim Franken, Norman Assed, Román Maes, Jackson Gibson, Gregory Ortiz and David Schutz all have hitched rides on state planes to attend meetings--all of it expensive and much of it in violation of state regulations. Since 2006 the cost to taxpayers has been $684,911.
Cope, the commission's chairman, has his own private jet and is aware of its costs.
"Larry, I have a Citation 6, and I very well know planes are expensive," Cope told News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker. "But this has been going on for 50 years. It's been a tradition that the department has always flown commissioners."
Tradition or not, the chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said times have changed.
"When we're in a tight financial situation like we are right now, it is bothersome, and it's got to be annoying to the taxpayers when they believe there's been an overutilization of luxurious travel.
"Obviously, they haven't looked at every nook and cranny on where they can find savings, and this is one that certainly needs to be reviewed once again."
Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, said he sees the need for the state fleet of three planes, but only to a point.
"I don't think people begrudge the fact that the state maybe has a state aircraft for use by senior officials," Payne told News 13. "I think where you draw the line, though, is the justification for the use of it starts to become too routine for routine matters. Then I think it's abusive."
"I think my constituents would have some issues if they knew that I was using state aircraft to attend meetings on a regular basis," added Sen. Mark Boitano, R-Albuquerque.
Ask how he would explain such regular use of state planes to his constituents, Boitano replied, "I couldn't."
It's not just highway commissioners. Few taxpayers have ever seen Gov. Bill Richardson getting off the state jet, and gubernatorial travel is something he just doesn't talk about.
When he boards New Mexico One, his mode of transportation and the flight plan are confidential. Security reasons, they say.
In April 2008 the governor flew on the state jet to Washington, then to Boston, and then back to Washington. In news releases, he touted all the high-level meetings he attended. What the governor didn't say, however, was that the aircraft tab set back taxpayers $31,930.
Since 2006 the governor's state plane use has cost $554,474.85. For Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, her tab has been $367,236.
With the state is in the middle of a budget crisis, Richardson last year ordered a cut back in state plane use. The state general services department oversees the operation of state aircraft. Art Jaramillo is the cabinet secretary.
"The new criteria requires the cabinet secretaries to determine, is the flight for an essential service, is it for an emergency, is it for surveillance or is it for health and safety?" Jaramillo said. "Otherwise, they have to meet the cost-efficiency requirement."
The governor said he intended to limit his use of state aircraft and that he expected the rest of state government to do the same. However, in the year since, Richardson's use of state aircraft actually increased by $15,343. Perhaps the governor didn't read his own memo, or maybe there is another reason.
"The guidelines are not applicable to either the governor or the lieutenant governor," Jaramillo said.
Such claims of being exempt from the rules don't sit well with Duncan Scott, a former assistant attorney general who also served as a Republican state senator.
"I think that's political cover because I think what they're doing here with the airplane is outrageous, and they understand that," Scott said.
In response to queries from News 13, the governor's office released a statement from Richardson saying he uses state aircraft based on the most efficient and effective use of his time and security balanced with the cost.
Denish has declined an interview request from News 13. Records reviewed by News 13 show she has not flown on state aircraft since January.
Part One of this reported was broadcast on July 27.
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Albuquerque police shot and killed a man Sunday night after responding to an assault call near UNM.
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