In 1994, George E. Pataki got very mad — or at least pretended to — about Mario M. Cuomo and his family using state aircraft to fly all over New York. Mr. Pataki wanted Mr. Cuomo’s job, which was governor.
Such flights, Mr. Pataki said, were an “incredibly stupid use of taxpayers’ money, like flea collars for the governor’s dog and some larger elements, like Air Cuomo, the plane and helicopters to ferry people around the state, not on government business.”
If elected, he, George Pataki, would get rid of the fleet.
That did not happen. Of course, he won the election — experts disagreed whether Mr. Cuomo went down in defeat over the flea collars, the taxpayer-financed “wee-wee pad” for his dog or his stand against the death penalty — but in victory, Mr. Pataki resisted the temptation to get rid of the aircraft that he had called a symbol of Mr. Cuomo’s “outrageous, free-spending liberal philosophy.”
It is not hard to imagine what happened next.
Not long after the election, Mr. Pataki himself was the subject of news stories about how the Pataki clan had replaced the Cuomos on board the state aircraft. With that, the executive helicopters and planes pretty much fell out of the news for the duration of the Pataki administration.
(And in far less important news, the state managed to increase its debt from $28 billion to $51 billion under Mr. Pataki, much of it by simply borrowing new money to pay off old debts.)
Then Eliot Spitzer replaced Mr. Pataki and promptly rescued the helicopters from obscurity. He permitted his enemy, Joseph L. Bruno, the leader of the Republicans in the State Senate, to ride whenever he wanted. As soon as Mr. Bruno used helicopters to go to political fund-raisers, Mr. Spitzer’s people ran to the newspapers and told on him.
This treachery has shocked even the case-hardened souls of Albany politicians who have overseen decades of pillage without batting an eye. Mr. Spitzer’s critics say his career is hanging by a thread. Once a professional Good Government Type, he now will have to rebrand himself to survive, though he surely can take heart from the recovery of Rudolph W. Giuliani, another politician who got his start by scolding people about their lack of ethics.
To recap, for those who have fallen into a stupor and can’t understand what was done wrong: the Spitzer people snitched on Mr. Bruno, instead of allowing him to fly in secrecy from Albany to Manhattan hotel suites so he could collect campaign money.
State troopers drive Mr. Bruno to the helicopters and fly him to the fund-raisers. He puts in a few minutes of legislative business at these events, he raises money, and then heads back home on the helicopter. The State Police have two Bell 430 helicopters that are used for “executive transport.”
WHEN Mario Cuomo was governor, the state estimated that an hour in a helicopter cost about $2,000. The state no longer tracks those costs. Remarkably, neither did the attorney general, who this week somehow managed to issue a 10,000-word report on the “alleged misuse of New York State aircraft and the resources of the state police” without mentioning how much it cost the police — and the public — to fly politicians on a state aircraft.
The attorney general happens to be Andrew M. Cuomo, son of the former governor, and himself an occasional passenger on what was known in its day as Air Cuomo.
For commercial helicopter use, the base cost is $1,250 an hour, according to David Wyndham of Conklin & de Decker, a firm that consults on aviation costs. That cost easily rises to $1,600 an hour when insurance and pilot salaries and benefits are included.
The true costs of these trips, though, are not just airfare. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to pay off old debts by borrowing $14 billion. This borrowing brought little in the way of new facilities for the public, but generated about $85 million in fees for underwriters and lawyers. They, in turn, gave $4 million in political contributions and lobbying fees. Today, that $14 billion is part of a debt crisis at the authority that could drive up bus and subway fares.
When politicians get a ride to a fund-raiser, the public can be paying for years.