Cash-strapped governments spend big on Paris trip
Sunday, October 2, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — As their cash-strapped governments slashed public programs and shed jobs, records show officials from at least 14 states jetted across the Atlantic in June to attend the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget.
The annual summertime exposition in France is among the world’s premier events for the aerospace industry, and officials in several states said gathering offered a unique opportunity to recruit potential employers. However, a review of receipts obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request found no direct evidence the taxpayer money spent in Paris resulted in the creation of new jobs back home.
The sizable state delegations were often accompanied by officials from county and municipal economic development groups, which are typically also supported by taxpayer money. Officials in several states ran up tabs in the tens of thousands of dollars, and some states — including North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi — spent more than $100,000.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spent $157,746 in taxpayer money on her trip to France, which was followed by a stop in Germany. Haley, a Republican who touts herself as a fiscal conservative, was accompanied by her husband, 11 staffers and a two-person security detail.
In neighboring North Carolina, state Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco and six members of his staff spent about $112,228 on travel and expenses.
The receipts obtained by the AP show Crisco hosted a party of five at the seafood restaurant Le Ballon des Ternes for a $653 meal of veal medallions, prawns and snails, washed down with four bottles of wine.
Three months after the Paris Air Show, Crisco had still not filed his final expense report for the trip. After a reporter requested his expenses, Crisco’s office said he would seek only the state’s standard $37.50 per diem for his share of the Paris meal.
It was the fourth year in a row that state has sent a delegation abroad for air shows in either France or England.
“This is about building relationships,” said Tim Crowley, Crisco’s spokesman. “If North Carolina is going to be a player in the aerospace industry, it must have a presence at the international air show.”
Connecticut taxpayers spent about $88,500 for two staff members to host a booth at the show. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer canceled plans to attend because of wildfires in her state, although three Commerce Authority officials still traveled at a cost of $14,716.
In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour sent his chief of staff and five employees of a state-supported development group to Paris at a cost to taxpayers of $105,983, after deducting $40,000 in corporate sponsorships.
Oklahoma sent four state officials to the show and spent a total of $83,717, records show. As in the other states, Oklahoma commerce secretary Dave Lopez was unable to cite concrete results from the trip.
“It’s hard to point to any one event and say that closes a deal,” Lopez said. “You make initial contacts. You exchange information. It’s not the kind of thing where there’s an immediate cause and effect.”
New York’s Department of Economic Development did not respond to requests for its expenses, though a list of exhibitors from the air show indicates the state hosted a booth.
Before leading a delegation from Washington state to the show, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire downplayed the financial impact of the journey by saying it would cost less than $40,000.
In fact, the state spent more than twice that much.
Gregoire’s Paris hotel room cost nearly $500 per night while travelers at times received per diems that estimated $84 dinners and $56 lunches, according to expense reports. The price of security alone was more than Gregoire’s initial estimate.
The total bill for the governor’s office, her Washington State Patrol security and aides from the Department of Commerce reached more than $98,000. Gregoire said in a statement that the investment will pay off in the long term and that the state must aggressively market itself to attract new businesses.
“We do it with extremely limited budgets and strategic spending,” Gregoire said. “No frills, but a lot of rolled up sleeves and on-the-ground work to gain immeasurable exposure.”
As with Washington, North Carolina officials initially played down the cost, originally estimating total expenses at less than $30,000. That figure failed to account for the $85,425 in taxpayer funds used toward North Carolina’s $125,000 booth at the air show.
During its week in the City of Light, the group occupied a block of rooms at the Villa des Ternes, described on its website as “a very private hotel, a stone’s throw from the Palais des Congrhs, near the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysies.” Rooms there cost about $300 a night, costing the state a total of $10,732.
Airfare for the delegation ran about $1,800 per person.
The state’s spokesman refused to name any of the aerospace executives or companies with whom Secretary Crisco met while in Paris, citing a need for confidentiality.
In addition to the pricey seafood dinner, North Carolina picked up the tab for a $247 lunch at the steakhouse le Galvacher that included plates of escargot, steak and salmon. The following day, Crisco and two aides entertained an unnamed client for a $315 lunch.
State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Charlotte Republican, said the administration of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and her predecessors has been too focused on trying to land “big game” projects from multinational corporations.
“When I went to Paris, it was on my own dime and I don’t remember eating at any of these restaurants,” Rucho said of the state-paid trip. “It might be flashy to say we landed a couple hundred jobs with some foreign company, but we need to be growing jobs with our own North Carolina companies. You hunt where the ducks are.”
Crisco’s spokesman said the taxpayer money spent on travel and entertainment will pay dividends in the future.
“There were more than a dozen leads generated from the show which are companies considering expansion or relocation, and there are three or four projects that are considered active, which means they are actively making decisions about relocation or expansion,” Crowley said.
Meanwhile, North Carolina officials already are preparing for their next international economic development trip.
Later this month, the governor, Crisco and aides will jet off to China and Japan for the second time in two years. The state expects to spend about $50,000 in taxpayer money on that trip.
Associated Press reporters Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C.; Paul Davenport in Phoenix; Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y.; Stephen Singer in Hartford, Conn.; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.
Michael Biesecker can be reached at email@example.com
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