Most often bloggers, journalists, and citizens conduct open records requests to discover what antics and activities their government has been up to at the expense of the taxpayer. As we have seen here on SAB, the results of those inquiries can be very revealing, and very embarrassing for whichever agency or public official was the subject of the open records check.
Sometimes the records requests go nowhere, as Century Code does not require an agency to create a record that does not exist. But the absence of records is on occasion a story unto itself, because it depicts a huge oversight on the part of government to provide for accountability to the taxpayer. Such is the case for North Dakota State University (NDSU) in the latest saga of their luxury business aircraft, a Beechcraft King Air 200, which we affectionately refer to as Air Bison here at SAB. As you may recall, this aircraft costs taxpayers 400% over market rate to operate.
Earlier this week, I filed an open records request with NDSU for a flight from Fargo to Bismarck and back on Feb 11th, 2013.
What became clear to us is NDSU has no formal processes governing and tracking the use of Air Bison. That leaves the door wide open for potential misuse at taxpayer expense, and a lack of transparency in how it is used.
The specific information I asked for was:
* Who were the passengers, to include names and official titles?
* What was the specific purpose of their trip to Bismarck?
* Was ground transportation considered, and if so, why was it not used?
What was provided is below:
As you can see, it lists the passengers only (I can seriously live without the titles as they can easily be researched), but nothing was provided justifying the purpose of the trip or why an airplane was used. This is all very basic information for an organization that owns an aircraft (government or private) to have on hand for audits, and to ensure efficient usage of with the best interest of the taxpayer in mind.
A case in point is the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission, who operates two aircraft (Palmetto 1 and 2) for their state, and posts their flight logs and manifests online for anyone to see (examples below). I want to highlight them in this post not because other North Dakota agencies with aircraft are deficient in tracking their aircraft use (it is clear from interim session study work on state aircraft usage that they do do a good job), but because South Carolina posts it in an open forum. This is a model for other agencies to follow, and hopefully is something our own ND Aeronautics Commission will adopt if HB 1033 is passed making them responsible for centralized aircraft management in the state.
Eventually, an NDSU attorney provided me the below email, which was supposed to lead me to believe that the aircraft trip was for a meeting with Senator Bill Bowman on their appropriation, and that the airplane was chosen due to weather. Instead, it led me to see they do not have a process governing the use of their aircraft with simple documentation showing why the aircraft was being used for each trip, and what justified the use of aircraft over other means of transportation. That is a huge oversight, and it shows the door is wide open for misuse of this aircraft by NDSU (not that that is a big surprise).
What was also clear is NDSU doesn’t seem to take seriously the ire they have incurred through their ownership and misuse of this plane (“… looking into using the infamous university airplane…”), and that a conference call probably would have sufficed for this meeting.
How South Carolina and other ND State Agencies operate their aircraft is an example of how it should be done with professionalism, and more importantly with the best interests of the taxpayer in mind. What is very bothersome is NDSU, even after all attention given them because of this lavish aircraft, does not have a clear process in place to track who is using the aircraft and for what purposes, nor do they have a process to justify using the aircraft over other means of transportation or other ways of meeting.
This is unacceptable for a taxpayer-funded entity.