Saturday, July 28, 2012

Taxpayers, University Donors Pick Up Tab For Public Universities’ Private Planes Rides

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Tax dollars and tuition keep the lights on at state universities, but taxpayer money also pays to own and maintain some high speed airplanes 

10 Investigates’ Paul Aker found those airplanes loaded with university officials and their families taking trips from New York to Boca Raton.

School officials said that the planes help them raise money, but some question whether the turbo-prop aircraft are necessary.

At Miami University in Oxford, the road to the big city is a long one. But for a privileged few it is not a road at all, it is a runway.

Miami spokeswoman Claire Wagner said that the university owned King Air TurboProp airplane allows for efficient use of time.

“To my knowledge, the flights are always about university business,” Wagner said.

Ohio University also owns a turbo-prop, which costs about $1,650 per hour.

Watchdog 10 found Ohio University and Miami University are the only ones that own turbo-props for dozens of employee trips.

In 2010, Ohio University's plane went up 166 times.

University chief administrators and their family members are among the privileged few with tickets to ride. Often, the trips are for “development,” which university officials said means fundraising.

Each university says those trips university officials take for fundraising are paid for by money given by university donors.

Those fundraising trips included plenty to New York City, a frequent stop for Miami University President David Hodge and his wife, Valerie, a university ambassador.

Miami University President David Hodges’ 25- year-old daughter, Meriem, also went on trips to New York and Chicago.

On one trip, only the Hodges traveled. Miami officials said those were fundraising trips. A Miami University spokeswoman also said that Meriem was valuable because she has a good rapport with younger university supporters.

Though university officials said that the plane use was for important school purposes, not everyone is so sure.

Henry Eckhart is with a government watchdog group. He said that the money does not seem well spent.

“The whole concept of a state university owning their own turbo-prop causes me real doubt,” Eckhart said.

Ohio University President Roderick McDavis, paid $429,000 per year, took trips to Naples and Fort Meyers, Fl. He knows the area well and owns a home there.

Other trips on the Ohio University plane included trips to sports events.

There was also a trip to this Tennessee bar called the “Wild Horse Saloon.” The flight was for a fundraiser called the “Bobcat Bash.”

It said that in past years the travel cost taxpayers about $250,000 a year. But it just started a program to rent out the plane that university officials said that they believed would off-set all of those costs. Beyond that, the university said that all of the travel is for official business.

Eckhart said the travel seems unnecessary.

“That sounds like a social bash,” Eckhart said. “If he's getting paid  a very competitive salary, why should he have an aircraft at his disposal too?”

University officials said that the cost to operate aircraft is the same no matter how many people fly, making it no more expensive for family members to come along.

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