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Woster: Providing public information about governor plane usage

Somewhere, I also used to see sheets that showed which agency got billed for the flight, too, with the cost often divided among agencies, depending on who the passengers were.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of state airplanes has been making news, and it reminds me that virtually every governor I covered as a news reporter took questions about flying places.

That isn’t to minimize questions about how Noem has used state-owned aircraft. Governors are always fair game for questions about how they use any of the state’s resources. The best way to get answers to those questions is, as sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the video tapes.’’ In this case, look through the flight logs.

In my experience, each flight has a separate log. The ones I’ve seen show where the aircraft went, who rode on each leg of the flight and things like that. Somewhere, I also used to see sheets that showed which agency got billed for the flight, too, with the cost often divided among agencies, depending on who the passengers were.

On Aug. 22, a state ethics board referred a complaint to the Division of Criminal Investigations for an investigation into whether Gov. Kristi Noem had misused the state airplane. Shortly thereafter, calls began coming in for Mark Vargo, the Noem-appointed interim attorney general, to recuse himself from the investigation. On Sept. 9, Vargo obliged.

In recent days, I’ve seen accounts of various Noem flights, with passengers and other information. Good. It’s public information. I’ve seen comparisons of Noem’s use of aircraft with that of her predecessor, Dennis Daugaard. Those are legitimate comparisons, with the caveat that care must be taken to be sure the logs and flights being studied really are comparable.

After I left reporting in 2009, I worked for state government for more than five years. Four of those years included Daugaard’s first term. He and I took one flight together on a state plane, the King Air 200, I believe. We flew from Pierre to Wessington Springs to survey tornado damage and talk to community people, emergency personnel and other responders. He flew back to Pierre. Others of us drove on to Mitchell and caught a smaller state airplane to the Canton area to coordinate with local folks dealing with major flooding in Lincoln and Union counties. That’s what I know about Daugaard’s use of state aircraft.

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Gov. Dick Kneip upset some folks during his administration in the 1970s when he talked about buying a new state plane. My awareness is that he didn’t fly that much compared to today’s governors. He often drove the state-provided Lincoln. During the 1973 oil embargo, he spoke in Pierre on energy conservation and then flew to Sioux Falls to give the same message for television. I noted that sequence in a story about conserving fuel. He frowned a bit but carried on.

During George Mickelson’s first term, the paper assigned me to look through flight logs and see how he was using the aircraft. I went to a small office somewhere in the Transportation building in Pierre. The chief pilot pulled folders full of logs from a cabinet and gave me space to go through them. I’m sure he worried that I’d do a negative story, but he just shrugged when I made the request. “Sure. They’re open records,’’ he said.

I don’t recall specifically asking Bill Janklow for actual flight logs. He’d probably have yelled and then had someone round them up. I did ask about individual flights now and then. He yelled and then answered my questions, sometimes in way more detail than I sought.

During Mike Rounds’ first term, questions arose about how he used the state airplane. A political opponent said he should make the logs available. He did, filling a cardboard box with flight logs. It sat on the floor in the press secretary’s office. Eventually, I told my paper somebody should go through the logs. A team of us reviewed each flight. Another reporter and I had two separate sit-downs with Rounds about individual flights. The meetings lasted at least an hour each. I can tell you that he answered every question we asked, told his people to look up information that wasn’t immediately at hand and let our photographer make many photographs in and around the airplane. The resulting series of stories didn’t please him, but he provided the public information.

I thought about that assignment some years later when, as an information person with Public Safety, I found myself with Rounds on a state airplane surveying spring flood damage. I suppose I’m in a few logs somewhere myself.

More from columnist Terry Woster...
Sometimes when my newspaper and the governor’s office were at odds over our coverage, I’d be unable to get formal interviews.

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