SANTA FE (KRQE) - New Mexico Land Commissioner Pat Lyons has a pilot's license, and he likes to use it.
During the last six years, the two-term commissioner spent tens of thousands of public dollars renting a plane to fly himself to meetings and speaking engagements around the state.
In 2005 alone, Lyons took 22 flights that cost $24,380, according to state records. He spent about that same amount in 2008, too.
For example, in late March 2008 Lyons flew from Santa Fe to Las Cruces to "meet with developers," according to records. Had he driven, the cost -- at 32-cents a mile -- would have been $180.
Instead, he billed the state $1,442 to rent a plane. In April, Lyons spoke to the Rotary Club in Truth or Consequences and then went to a meeting in Clovis. Taxpayers picked up a $1,923 tab for the trip, which would have cost $244 by car.
Lyons flew to Farmington in May and paid $1,442 to rent the plane. The cost by car? $134. Finally, the land commissioner spent more than $3,500 in May to fly to Clovis, Clayton and a natural resources conference in Wyoming.
Altogether, Lyons billed the state more than $24,000 for 16 separate flights in 2008, according to state records.
"Ten-thousand dollars a year (on average)? That's a lot of travel around the state?" Lyons said in a recent interview. "We flew as efficient as we could around the state."
But the numbers don't fly with state Rep. Al Park, D-Albuquerque.
"I'm not sure that flying at a cost of $1,400 or $1,600 is the most effective use of our money," he said. "That's a lot of money."
Former Land Commissioner Jim Baca told News 13 that he traveled by car almost exclusively during his years in office. Former Commissioner Ray Powell, who was re-elected to the job again in November, told a similar story and said he used the state plane just once during his term in office.
Lyons, however, said he was more active than his predecessors.
"Well the other land commissioners, Baca and Powell before me. I don't think they did much traveling at all," he said.
Each time Lyons rented a plane, he used a company called Casey Aviation, according to state records. In fact, between 2005 and 2010, the state paid Casey Aviation nearly $80,000 to rent a plane for Lyons.
An online search for aircraft rental in New Mexico failed to bring up the company. There is also no listing for the company in the Albuquerque phone book.
And even though the company lists an Albuquerque address on its invoices to the state, the city of Albuquerque had no record of Casey Aviation.
"We didn't find Casey Aviation in our database or at that address," said Albuquerque City Treasurer Cilia Aglialoro.
News 13 called the number on the invoice and got the home of Keigm Crook, a dentist in northeast Albuquerque. Crook said Casey Aviation consists of a single plane he rented to Lyons for $375 an hour.
Another business in Albuquerque rents the same Cessna for $195 an hour.
It turns out that Crook and Lyons went to high school together in Clovis. Crook said the two have been friends for decades.
Lyons also confirmed that he and Crook are longtime friends. He also said his travels around the state have allowed him to get more done than his predecessors.
"No it's not a fair comparison because they didn't get around and do projects around the state," Lyons said. "(Like) create the uranium enrichment plant down in Lea County. (Like) create jobs and help our beneficiaries. So $10,000 a year in travel is pretty cheap."
"It's not news we're facing a fiscal crisis," he said. "And in times of fiscal crisis we need to be really careful with our money. We need to be good stewards of public funds, and I'm not sure that constitutes being good stewards of public money."
Lyons is set to leave his post as land commissioner at the end of the year although he won't be leaving state government. He was elected to replace David King on the Public Regulation Commission where he will represent the central and southeastern part of the state.
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