Tuesday, April 26, 2016

After helicopter fetches Governor Robert Bentley’s wallet, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency won’t answer policy questions on helicopter use: What we know about the Bentley campaign's $200,000 private plane habit

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) – Shortly after we learned an Alabama Law Enforcement Agency helicopter flew to retrieve Governor Robert Bentley’s wallet in Tuscaloosa and fly it down to him near Gulf Shores, ALEA released a statement.

They cite code that says ALEA is charged with protecting the governor and that they have the authority to use “any personnel or equipment of the department for the protection or security, or both, of any protectee designated in this chapter, at any personal, political, official, campaign-related, or recreational event.”

But we still had plenty of questions.

One obvious one is cost. We talked to Nick Emmons, a flight instructor and commercial helicopter pilot.

He says helicopter costs depend on what you include. There’s fuel, but there’s also pilot time and regular, expensive maintenance.

“If you called me and said, ‘I’m in Gulf Shores and I left my wallet, I want to hire you to bring it to me,'” Emmons tells us, “I could not do it for less that $550 to $600 an hour.”

He estimates the whole journey for Bentley’s wallet would take around four hours by chopper. That puts his total between $2,200 and $2,400. He says state rates on fuel could make the trip cheaper for them. He also acknowledges the state may not have to pay for the helicopters, which often come from the military.  That also makes the flight cheaper.

To be frank, even the high-end estimate is not a huge number for a state agency like ALEA though.

Here’s what we’re most interested in. When a pilot wants to take off, he puts a ton of thought into it.

Emmons lists off, “You have a pre-flight check list. On that pre-flight checklist, according to how complicated the aircraft is, it could be as simple as twenty items. It could be seventy items.”

But what checklist does ALEA use before launching a helicopter to pick up a wallet? Their statement says:

“[T]he decision to utilize department equipment to facilitate the request was made through ALEA`s chain of command, using standard agency protocol.”

We’ve asked three different times “Does ALEA have written policy on the use of its helicopters, for instance when they may be used or what for?”

Still no answer.

We’ve also asked the governor’s office multiple times the governor did anything to impact the use of state helicopters going forward.

Still no answer.

Original article can be found here:  http://whnt.com 

Governor Robert Bentley greets Ulrich Weber, head of Airbus Final Assembly Line USA, during ceremonies for the very first delivery of an Airbus A321 to JetBlue at Mobile's Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility on Monday April 25, 2016.

Gov. Robert Bentley's prolific use of state planes has been the subject of intense scrutiny in the months since rumors first emerged that he had an affair with Rebekah Caldwell Mason, a former top adviser.

But the murkier topic of how exactly Bentley used private planes has been largely absent from media coverage.

One major reason for the lack of reporting about the governor's private plane habit is the fact that there are no public records detailing when Bentley hired such aircraft. Unlike with state airplanes and helicopters, there is no legally mandated public paper trail for the private flights Bentley took.

Over the course of the final three months of the 2014 gubernatorial election and the week following Election Day of that year, Bentley used campaign funds to foot the bill for a number of private flights.

The extent of Bentley's reliance on private planes is likely impossible to determine via publicly available sources.

But AL.com was able to compile some information that gives a partial picture of the governor's private plane use, an area of inquiry that is by its very nature not public.

Between Sept. 17, 2014, and Nov. 13, 2014, Bentley's campaign made four payments totaling $213,052.50 to Powder Springs, Georgia-based Aviation Development Group (ADG), according to campaign finance filings.

Little information about ADG is publicly available. But Georgia state records identify longtime pilot and businessman Thomas Harrison Huff as ADG's registered agent, founder and manager.

Reached by telephone earlier this month, Huff declined to answer questions about what services he provided to the Bentley campaign in exchange for the payments, whether he ever flew the governor or any other topic.

"That's one of those things where I'm not allowed to give that information for security reasons," Huff said, adding only that he does not own any planes.

Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis told AL.com via email Monday that she is unable to answer any questions about Bentley's private flight history. Ardis did not respond to an email asking who might be better qualified to answer such questions.

"I did not work for the Bentley Campaign and because I am a state employee, I cannot answer your questions because I do not know the answer to your questions," she wrote.

Bentley's accountant, Michael Echols, whose office number is listed as the point of contact on the governor's 2014 annual campaign finance report, did not return a phone message seeking comment Monday.

Yet there are some online hints about ADG's operations that provide a glimpse inside the company.

The website www.adg.aero is the homepage for "Blue Sky Charter," a Georgia company registered by the same law firm as the one that registered Aviation Development Group.  Georgia business registration records show that the two companies also share a single "principal office address," a Powder Springs residence listed in deed records as being owned by Huff.

The header on www.adg.aero's homepage says "Blue Sky Charter – An Aviation Development Group company," and the website's footer reads "© 2016 Aviation Development Group, LLC."

Blue Sky's website advertises a range of chartered flight options, and its "Services" section includes a brief quote attributed to "Thomas Huff, President" at the top: "We anticipate our customers' every need."

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records, there are no airplanes registered to either ADG or Blue Sky. But Blue Sky Charter's website displays three different planes that can be rented for between $2,850 and $4,750 an hour.

One of the planes shown on the site and identified by tail number in a related URL is currently registered to a company in Atlanta, while the other was most recently registered to a North Carolina outfit, though its certification appears to have expired, FAA records show. An employee of the website FlightAware, which tracks private flights and sells the information online, looked up the flight history between March 15, 2013 and April 20, 2015 for one of the flights advertised on the Blue Sky website for AL.com and found nothing.

"There's a possibility that it could've been blocked from the FAA; they could have blocked it from the FAA." the employee said via phone, suggesting that someone may have requested to have the airplane's flight patterns be withheld from the authorities, which is not necessarily unusual. "Presidential candidates do that, but anyone can do so."

The Bentley campaign also made payments to two other aviation-related firms, according to campaign finance records.

On Nov. 13, 2014, the Bentley campaign paid Tuscaloosa-based Bunn Brothers Aviation $2,880.

That same day, the campaign paid Planeworks, LLC $1,426. The Birmingham-based company manages aircraft for clients including Bunn Brothers and the Jim 'N Nick's BBQ Restaurant chain, according to a Bessemer Airport employee with knowledge of the two Alabama-based aviation companies' operations.

Planeworks owner Oscar Kent, who also flies for Bunn Brothers, told AL.com via phone earlier this month that he flew Bentley only "once to the best of [his] recollection."

"It seemed like it was just him and another guy," Kent said. "He just contacted me to fly ... I think I only flew him one time."

Controversy over Bentley's frequent use of state planes has played a role in the fallout of the allegations that the governor had an affair with Mason. A key potential question for investigators is whether Bentley used taxpayer-funded state aircraft for personal use – perhaps to keep his wife and alleged mistress apart, as some have alleged.

Earlier this month, Bentley admitted that a state helicopter was used in 2014 to transport a wallet he accidentally left in Tuscaloosa to his home in Gulf Shores.

Original article can be found here:   http://www.al.com

No comments: