Thursday, July 25, 2013

Michigan Department of Transportation: We didn't break rules with state planes usage -- Agency says use of planes by Michigan State University athletics within regulations

Documents MDOT sent to FAA by LansingStateJournal

Michigan Department of Transportation officials contend they haven’t been violating federal regulations by allowing Michigan State University coaches to use the state’s passenger planes for recruiting trips.

MDOT’s defense is laid out in documents it sent the Federal Aviation Administration this month in response to the agency’s investigation into MDOT’s management of the state-owned planes.

The investigation was prompted in early June after the State Journal published articles about the state planes, how they’re used and who rides in them.

The target of the FAA probe is still unclear. FAA officials don’t comment on open investigations, and MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson will not answer specific questions about it.

However, a letter to the FAA from MDOT transport and safety manager Rick Carlson suggests two concerns from the FAA — that the MSU Athletics Department isn’t eligible to use the state planes because it is a self-sustaining division of the university, and that MDOT erred by not obtaining a certificate to provide services for hire outside state government.

Carlson refuted any wrongdoing by the state.

“MDOT does not agree with the assertions that we have been providing air commerce without an appropriate operating certificate,” Carlson told the FAA in his July 3 letter, obtained by the State Journal.

He wrote that it has been a longstanding practice to provide air transportation to state agencies and that all Michigan universities and their auxiliary operations, such as athletics, are part of state government.

“MDOT does not hold out its services to the public,” Carlson wrote. “State colleges and universities and their discretionary unbudgeted fund accounts (are) an arm of state government. We, therefore, conclude that state colleges and universities are eligible to use state aircraft on college and university business.”

Court ruling

Carlson also pointed to a federal court ruling he said specifically establishes MSU’s status as part of state government.

Cranson would not answer questions Wednesday aimed at clarifying Carlson’s letter and the scope of the FAA inquiry.

“We aren’t prepared to speculate,” Cranson said.

State-owned aircraft, such as Michigan’s four passenger planes, are classified as “public aircraft,” which by federal law cannot be used as transportation for hire outside government. Aircraft used for commercial purposes must have certification.

MDOT makes the state-owned planes available to all state employees and employees of Michigan’s 15 four-year public universities who can justify the cost of traveling in them for work purposes. Any state department that uses the planes, including MSU, reimburses MDOT for the expense of operating the flights, a practice which conforms with federal regulations.

However, according to Carlson’s letter, the FAA is suggesting that MSU athletics could be outside the scope of state government, which would make those flights “commercial” in nature and require MDOT to have a proper certification.

In June, the State Journal reviewed five years’ worth of trip logs for the state-owned planes and reported that MSU men’s head basketball coach Tom Izzo and MSU head football coach Mark Dantonio were among the most frequent fliers.

In all, MSU employees and guests used the state planes at least 150 times during the five-year period analyzed by the State Journal. That was third-most among any state entity, behind MDOT and the Michigan State Police. At least two-thirds of the passengers on the MSU trips were affiliated with the university’s athletics department, the State Journal found.

MSU spokesman Jason Cody said the athletics department is one of several “auxiliary services” within MSU. Others include the residence hall system, the MSU Union and the convenience stores — all of which are self-sustaining through the revenue they generate for themselves, Cody said.

“That doesn’t mean they are outside the scope of the university financial system,” Cody said. “They’re not separate. They don’t maintain their own accounts. Any money that goes through the university is considered public money and that includes athletics.”

MSU, though not a target of the FAA investigation, also has turned over documents to the federal agency, including billing invoices, Cody said.

The State Journal filed a Freedom of Information Act request on July 15 to obtain the documents from MSU. The university’s FOIA officer told the State Journal on Tuesday the university is requesting additional time to process that request. A response is due by Aug. 6.

Specific documents

Cranson said the FAA did not ask for any specific documents from MDOT, but documents given to the State Journal show the state agency turned over billing invoices and receipts for 14 flights associated with state universities:

• A November 2012 flight by four academic employees of Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula,

• A September 2012 flight by five faculty and staff members associated with MSU’s Center for Bleeding and Clotting Disorders,

• And a dozen flights taken in February and March involving Dantonio, Izzo and MSU head women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant.

Cranson called those flights “representative examples” to show the FAA. Carlson also wrote to the FAA that MDOT has not accepted any flight requests from state universities since the FAA’s inquiry began nearly two months ago.

“We do not believe we have operated outside of (federal regulations),” Carlson said. “In the best interest of the universities and our operation, we will continue to decline state university flight requests and fully cooperate with your office until the matter is resolved.”

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