Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

EDITORIAL >> Make Huckabee accountable

In four years, according to calculations by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Gov. Huckabee burned the State Police for $485,000 to carry him about the country on airplanes that the agency acquired for police work. If you apply the same expense rate to all his air travels since he took office nearly 10 years ago, hauling the governor, his wife, children, friends and aides has cost the law-enforcement agency (taxpayers) nearly $1 million.

Those expenses are not charged against the appropriation for the governor’s office but are unidentified in the State Police annual appropriation. The budget for the office of the governor makes him look pretty frugal.

But is that sum exorbitant, and should taxpayers not bear all the cost of Huckabee’s air travels? We wish we could say, but the skimpy government records do not support a solid judgment of any kind. The purposes of the travels — whether important state business, personal or political — are not identified on the State Police logbooks except for the rote stamp “official business.” Even that is not required by law. Guests are often identified only by entries such as “K. Rove.” Hmmm. Wonder who that was?

The governor of even our little insular state is an important person whose duties require travel, both about the state and to our nation’s capital, among other venues. Arkansas governors have tended to gain a measure of national respect and prestigious offices like chairmanships of governors’ associations. No one should begrudge the governor’s travel to perform the ceremonial and substantive functions of those jobs.

The Arkansas Times began raising questions about the governor’s and his wife’s taxpayer-paid travels three years ago, suggesting that it was not all official business and that the state should not be subsidizing personal and political journeys.

There were Mrs. Huckabee’s flights to Okla-homa to visit friends and many flights to the first couple’s weekend getaway in southwest Arkansas. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday identified a number of trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the early presidential primary states.

Huckabee has refused for years to discuss the State Police flights with the Times because he says the paper does not report on him accurately. The Democrat-Gazette story said the governor refused to talk to its reporters about the travel because they edited and twisted his words. On a radio call-in show the other day, he said all the trips involved at least some official business, although there might have been personal and political events sandwiched around it. He wrote a policy in 1997 spelling out that he would not use the State Police aircraft for out-of-state trips that were “solely” for political or religious purposes or for personal business. An aide said then that the governor would reimburse the state from his campaign funds for part of the costs of any flights that happened to involve political events. The State Police said there had been no reimbursements.

What do others do? Bill Clinton, a similarly ambitious governor, did not use a state plane and paid for his gallivanting from campaign funds. The Republican governors of Texas and Missouri don’t let taxpayers pay for their air travel. Mississippi and Tennessee require extensive details on the state business involved in flights on state aircraft.

Who can say whether the Huckabees abused the office by charging taxpayers for personal and political business in the 731 flights they took on State Police planes from July 1996 through 2005?

We must give them the benefit of doubt. But we confidently surmise one thing: As it is in so much else in the realm of public ethics, Arkansas is woefully lax in enforcing good behavior by its servants. The state should require detailed records and strict accounting for public travel by officeholders. Until it does, some politician sometime is liable to cheat.