Six weeks before he won reelection to a second term last November, Gov. Peter Shumlin rode a state-owned airplane to a campaign event and failed to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the trip.
On September 27, Shumlin flew from Berlin's Knapp State Airport to Newport State Airport and then on to Lyndonville's Caledonia County Airport to take part in a series of economic development announcements, according to Shumlin chief of staff Elizabeth Miller.
After completing his official duties, the governor was flown to Middlebury State Airport and then driven to a house party in Lincoln to raise money for his reelection campaign, Miller says. The Agency of Transportation, which operates the Cessna 182, billed the governor's office $332.76 for Shumlin's air travel that day.
After Seven Days inquired about whether Shumlin used the plane to travel to campaign events, the governor's office said it had decided to ask the campaign to reimburse taxpayers for the final leg of that day's trip, which the AOT says cost just $65.80.
"That seems to me to be the right thing to do," Miller says. "We've also asked AOT that in the future, should the plane be used by our office, to bill us by leg, so that if such expenses need to be reviewed, we can do that."
The September 27 trip was one of five plane rides taken by Shumlin since he was elected governor — all of which took place between August 30 and October 25 of last year, according to records provided by the governor's office. The total cost of the flights amounted to $1671.32.
Why the sudden uptick in plane travel last fall?
"The governor didn't know that there was a state plane for use until last summer," Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said in a written statement.
"Having dealt for a year and a half with the logistics of getting the governor to events and planning attendance and travel time, we decided to use the plane a few times when it made sense to do so. We considered it a few other times, too, but it's been grounded for maintenance or unable to be used due to weather, darkness, etc."
According to the governor's office, Shumlin used the state-owned plane for the following trips, nearly all of which were round-trip flights from Knapp (explanations for why he traveled by plane instead of car provided by the administration and noted in quotes):
Aug. 30 — $394.80 — To Bennington for the opening of Route 9. "Timing issue: Meetings in Montpelier in the morning; Bennington event at noon."
Sept. 1 — $253.80 — To Rutland for the Vermont State Fair. "No special reason."
Sept. 27 — $332.76 — To Newport for press event at Jay Peak, then to Lyndonville for press event at Burke Mountain, then to Middlebury for campaign event. "Timing issue: Newport events from 10 to 2; Burke events started at 3."
Oct. 5 — $344.04 — To Brattleboro for meeting and public event with U.S. Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood. "Timing issue: Brattleboro event at 9:30 a.m.; Springfield event at 11; Burlington event (UVM President Sullivan's installation ceremony) at 1 p.m."
Oct. 25 — $345.92 — To Bennington for business, housing visits. "Timing issue: Press conference in Barre until 11 a.m.; in Bennington for noon event."
The state-owned airplane has been the subject of some discussion in the Statehouse for the past week-and-a-half, since lawmakers caught wind of a budget request from the AOT to replace the 1962 Cessna with a 2013 Beechcraft Baron.
The new plane would cost taxpayers $117,600-a-year for 10 years, transportation officials said.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) told Seven Days last week that he was surprised to learn of the proposed upgrade and was not inclined to support it.
By Thursday, when Shumlin was asked about the plane at a Statehouse press conference, the administration seemed to have backed off its original request.
"We don't have to do it this year, but at some point we're going to have to deal with it, and that's, I think, what the Agency of Transportation suggested. This is probably not the year, but we're going to have to deal with it," Shumlin said.
Later he added, "I don't think either myself or [Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles] believe that this has to happen this year. At some point, Vermont's gonna have to face the fact that we're flying a pretty old airplane."
Shumlin sought to make light of the situation by describing one harrowing journey he took.
"You know, I don't have the fear gene, so I'm alright," he began. "Last time I was in it the door flew open. I pulled it back. Wanted to see what the gas tank was reading and so we knocked the gauge a few times and we couldn't get it to read. Now, I've got confidence that we filled it up before we left."
"All I can tell you is that at some point, at some point we're going to have to confront the fact that we've got a 50-year-old plane, that the doors fly open when you fly it, that the gas gauge doesn't work, and the rest," he said. "My staff flips out every time I crawl into it."
File photo of state aviation program administrator Guy Rouelle and the state-owned Cessna by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.