New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s trip on a state police helicopter to watch his son’s high school baseball game drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers who called for the first-term Republican to repay the cost.
Christie, who has asked workers to give up benefits as part of “shared sacrifice” in cutting the cost of government, used the chopper to travel from Trenton to Montvale yesterday to watch his son play catcher for Delbarton School. The flight cost taxpayers $2,500 for an hour of time logged, State Police Sergeant Stephen Jones said in a telephone interview.
“It is a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands,” Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said in an e-mail yesterday. “This has historically been the case in prior administrations as well, and we continue to be judicious in limiting its use.”
State Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski called Christie’s ride on the $12.5 million aircraft “hypocrisy” after the governor criticized state spending and targeted public officials who abuse government perks.
“It’s an outrage, quite frankly,” Wisniewski, an assemblyman from Sayreville, said in a telephone interview today. “This is a governor who made a career out of criticizing other people for breaking the rules and here he is, breaking the same rules in a cavalier fashion.”
Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, a Democrat from Washington Township in Gloucester County, criticized Christie’s decision to fly after he cut property-tax rebates and funding for women’s health care. He called on the governor to “immediately reimburse the taxpayers for all costs associated with personal and political trips.”
“Taxpayers cannot afford his helicopter joyrides,” Moriarty said in a statement. Drewniak didn’t return phone calls today.
Moriarty is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit any member of the governor’s office or state employee from taxpayer-funded travel or staying overnight unless the trip is deemed to be essential.
Christie, 48, had no public events scheduled yesterday or today. He had a meeting last night at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, about 67 miles (108 kilometers) by car from Saint Joseph High School in Montvale. Delbarton won the 4 p.m. game, 7-2.
The governor met with a group of donors and political operatives from Iowa, said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the New Jersey Republican State Committee. The Hawkeye State delegation “offered support” for the governor and was unable to lure him into a presidential run in 2012, Gorka said. Christie plans to go to Iowa in July to make a speech about education, he said.
“They like what he’s done here in New Jersey and they asked him to run,” Gorka said. “He politely reiterated his position. He has an obligation to voters here in New Jersey.”
Christie has been aboard state police helicopters 33 times since taking office, said Jones of the State Police.
The executive protection unit “provides secure, protected travel by vehicle in the overwhelming majority of the governor’s business and personal travel, except in those rare instances when the governor’s schedule warrants use of air travel,” State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said in a statement.
There is no additional cost to taxpayers of having Christie aboard state police helicopters because they fly daily for homeland security missions or training, Fuentes said.
Christie or a member of his staff used six state-owned helicopters 21 times in 2010, according to records provided by the state police in December.
On three dates -- July 6, Aug. 28 and Sept. 6 -- the aircraft landed at Island Beach State Park, where governors have the use of a state-owned vacation home. On June 6, a helicopter flew from Trenton to Mahwah, picked up the governor from a luncheon at the Sheraton hotel and landed at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, where State Trooper Marc Castellano was being treated after he was struck by a car. Castellano died later that day.
The choppers used for the trips, which totaled 62 hours last year, included Sikorsky S-76Bs, a Bell 206-L4 and an Agusta AW139, according to a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration database. The hourly operating cost is $2,298 for the Sikorskys and $496 for the Bell, according to a state Department of Law and Public Safety report prepared for the Legislature.
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for Attorney General Paula Dow, said the helicopter Christie used yesterday was a new Agusta used for transporting emergency patients, law enforcement officers and executives.
The state has so far bought two of a planned five of the Agusta helicopters, which will replace the state’s aging fleet of Sikorskys and Bells, according to budget documents. Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, who sponsored legislation authorizing the purchase of the helicopters, called Christie’s use of the fleet “a serious abuse of taxpayer dollars.”
The helicopters should be used only when necessary to “transport governors safely and swiftly to important state business,” said Quigley, a Jersey City Democrat.
“I’m sure every resident of this state would love to have access to these helicopters when they’re stuck in traffic on the Turnpike or Parkway and missing an important appointment,” she said in a statement. “Sadly, we don’t all have that luxury.”
The use of state helicopters by New Jersey governors has been a political issue for years. In 1993, Republican Christine Todd Whitman cited Democratic Governor Jim Florio’s use of the aircraft as an example of government waste in her successful campaign. In 2002, Democratic Governor James McGreevey apologized and his party reimbursed the state $18,200 for 14 personal flights in state helicopters.
Christie’s travel spending during his term as a federal prosecutor was criticized by the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general in a November report. Christie provided “insufficient, inaccurate or no justification” for 14 of 23 trips that exceeded the government rate, the report said.
“U.S. Attorney C was the U.S. Attorney who most often exceeded the government rate without adequate justification,” the report said, using initials Christie’s office later said referred to the governor. He exceeded the allowable rate by a total of $2,176, according to the report.