Flights in state police helicopters by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno have cost at least $390,200 since they took office in January 2010, according to records released yesterday.
Christie has increasingly relied on the aircraft to reach town-hall meetings, making six such trips at a cost of $11,750 in the past 12 months. By comparison, in the more than two years from January 2010 through February 2012, the governor used the helicopters for eight such appearances.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, said the governor appears to be riding to events that are less about public business and more about campaigning. Christie, 50, a Republican in his first term, is running for re-election in November. Polls show his voter-approval ratings at record levels for his handling of Hurricane Sandy.
In the past year Christie has been a helicopter passenger 65 times, and Guadagno, also up for re-election, has been aboard twice without him. The charges from March 2012 through February 2013 amounted to $172,500, based on a rate of $2,500 an hour, as calculated by the state police in March 2012.
Christie and Guadagno, 53, have flown 164 times during their time in office, according to documents released by the state Law and Public Safety Department in response to a Bloomberg News request. Most flights were aboard one of New Jersey’s $12.5 million Agusta helicopters, which also are used for law enforcement and homeland security.
According to a list supplied by Michael Drewniak, a Christie spokesman, the flights have been taken to events such as an announcement that WrestleMania, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.’s biggest annual event, would take place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford in February 2012. The aircraft have also been used to reach the funeral of Democratic congressman Donald Payne in March 2012, as well as media interviews and news briefings.
The governor has presided over 104 town-hall meetings, in which he speaks and answers questions from local audiences around the state. Staff members record some of the appearances for the governor’s channel on Google Inc.’s YouTube.com website. Fourteen of those events involved state police-piloted aircraft.
“With all use of the helicopter, the dictate is the governor’s schedule and the simple logistics of getting from point A to point B,” Drewniak said by telephone. “It’s just a matter of how the schedule falls into place. The town halls don’t dictate when we use the helicopter.”
The governor has reimbursed the state for all political and personal helicopter use, Drewniak said. The state Republican Party repaid the government for appearances in Stone Harbor on July 23, in Saddle River on Sept. 12 and in Pennsylvania on Oct. 18. Chris Christie for Governor, his re-election fund, covered the cost of reaching an event in New Brunswick on Feb. 4, all according to the list sent by Drewniak.
Taxpayers bear no additional expense for transporting governors because the crews fly training or security missions daily, according to statements from the State Police last year.
Christie was in the air nine times in the week after Hurricane Sandy struck Oct. 29, devastating some coastal towns. The cost of the 11.3 hours of flight time involved was $28,250.
“New Jersey had experienced its greatest natural disaster ever and to have a full scope of the devastation, there was no better viewpoint than to see it from the air,” Drewniak said.
Democrats, who control the Legislature, chided Christie in June 2011, after he used the aircraft to attend political and personal events, including two high school baseball games in which his son was a player. The state Republican Party and Christie reimbursed the government for $3,383.79 to cover the flight time over the fifth-smallest U.S. state.
As governor, Christie should use the helicopter when there are safety issues or when there’s a public interest in doing so, Weinberg, the Senate Democrat, said yesterday. Yet recent town-hall meetings appear to be political rallies, she said.
“The town halls have really become campaign events -- there’s no doubt about it,” she said by telephone. “Town halls are great and it’s good that the governor is out there meeting with constituents, but it seems to me to be less about questions and answers and more about a campaign.”
Christie’s predecessor, multimillionaire Democrat Jon Corzine, personally paid for his air travel. In April 2007, Corzine almost died in a crash of his state trooper-driven sport-utility vehicle, which was going 91 miles (146 kilometers) an hour on the Garden State Parkway.
A panel that reviewed the crash suggested that state helicopters be used more often to cut the security and safety risk to the governor in motorcades that traveled about 100,000 miles a year through the nation’s most densely populated state.