Auditor: Patrol didn’t show need for new plane

Because the five airplanes the state already owned weren’t used enough, the Missouri Highway Patrol didn’t justify why it needed to buy a new, nearly $5.6 million airplane late last year, state Auditor Tom Schweich said in a 37-page report released Tuesday.

The patrol already owned two planes, and the Conservation department three, when the patrol last December ordered its new King Air 250.

The auditors said those planes are underutilized, because there was no day in 2012 when at least one of the state’s five planes was not available for use — and 113 days when none of the airplanes were being used, auditors found.

So, the audit said, there needs to be — and should have been — more coordination among the agencies before anyone bought an expensive, new plane.

“That’s just good government (with) economies of scale,” Schweich told the News Tribune on Tuesday morning. “There was a plane available every single day. ...

“I’d like the data to speak for itself — do you really need to buy a new plane, under those circumstances?”

In its response, included in the audit report, the Patrol said it “did conduct a thorough analysis of needs and usage before purchasing the 2012 King Air 250 for the reduced price of $5.59 million. While the Patrol did not track instances of when a flight was requested and an airplane was not available, the Patrol is aware through the course of doing business that it receives many requests from multiple agencies to conduct flights for state business on the same day and has to deny those requests due to unavailability of an airplane.”

But, Schweich said, patrol officials should have been able to show that need — and they didn’t.

He said the Patrol also didn’t justify buying a new plane when a used aircraft would have been just as good — and much less expensive.

The patrol said it “also studied the feasibility of purchasing a new airplane versus a used one. ... Multiple factors were taken into consideration, including airplane-specific training for pilots and mechanics that is included in the cost of this airplane, the elaborate and costly inspection process involved with purchasing a used airplane, and ongoing training requirements associated with purchasing a used airplane that is notably different than the rest of the Patrol’s fleet.

“Increased seating capacity valued at $28,000, and an extensive warranty, were also included in the purchase price of this airplane. After careful consideration of all aspects, and evaluating the costs and benefits involved with each, the Patrol concluded that the purchase of this airplane would provide the best investment.”

Schweich and his staff already were working on the patrol’s audit when lawmakers complained in January that the new airplane purchase was unnecessary, and, possibly, bought to help Gov. Jay Nixon’s future political ambitions.

The audit noted the patrol’s decision to buy the new King Air 250 was a legal decision, and the agency had the money.

In addition, the report said: “We did not attempt to evaluate the necessity or appropriateness of flights taken.”

But, in Tuesday’s interview, Schweich wondered why Nixon and other state officials don’t drive more than using the airplanes.

Nixon’s office didn’t offer a comment on the audit report.

But House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said in a news release: “I want to thank Auditor Tom Schweich for exposing the irresponsible and incredible waste incurred by the recent purchase of a luxury airplane to ferry Governor Nixon and his administrative staff on trips back and forth across the nation.

“(The) audit results only further confirm the Nixon administration’s misplaced priorities.”

When lawmakers last January first learned of the patrol’s new airplane purchase, several questioned the need for a bigger airplane capable of traveling to other states more easily, suggesting that Nixon needed it to work toward his next political goal — whatever that might be.

Nixon is a Democrat.

Like Jones, Schweich is a Republican, but said his audit was about financial records, not political activities.

Col. Ron Replogle, the patrol’s superintendent, told reporters and lawmakers the patrol — not the governor — made the decision to purchase the new plane.

And a News Tribune study of 2012 travel records showed Nixon and his administrators mainly used the patrol’s 1991 King Air 90 airplane on in-state trips.

The News Tribune study, reported in Sunday’s newspaper, did not look at the use of the four other planes listed in Schweich’s audit.

And the examination showed Nixon taking 104 of a total 125 flights on the King Air 90 in 2012, or 83.2 percent of all flights.

But the auditor’s staff, with direct access to the patrol’s records, cited a total of 163 flights on that plane, with Nixon using only 100 — for a 61.35 percent usage.

The audit also found 49 Highway Patrol flights where the newspaper study had four, and the audit listed 11 Transportation department flights, and the News Tribune reported 13.

Even with the audit report’s numbers, Nixon and his administration still were the King Air 90’s biggest users last year.

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