Many members of the tobacco commission regularly fly on state-owned planes to attend the group’s meetings at various locations in Virginia, costing thousands of dollars.
The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission has been under scrutiny in recent months for an audit criticizing the group for its spending priorities and for sending members and staff to Europe to recruit businesses.
In all, the tobacco commission used two state-owned planes to travel on trips over 11 days at a cost of nearly $40,000 between Jan. 16, 2010, and June 9, according to records released by the state in response to Freedom of Information Act request.
This week, we reported that Gov. Bob McDonnell’s travel in and out of state on the state’s fleet of planes and helicopters cost taxpayers more than $200,000 as he flew for government business, occasionally for political events and sometimes with his family.
State guidelines indicate that priority for the planes — a pair of King Air 350 twin-engine turboprops that carry 11 — are given to the governor’s office and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Other agencies and commissions may use the planes when they are available.
A variety of other agencies and commissions have used the planes, including the Department of Corrections to transport fugitives to other states, the Virginia Department of Transportation and state universities, including Virginia Tech’s football coach Frank Beamer for recruiting.
Neal Noyes, tobacco commission executive director, said the commission pays the Virginia Department of Aviation for the plane’s use, just like other state agencies and commissions.
House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry), whose district benefits from the tobacco settlement but has been critical of the commission’s past spending, said the use of the state planes sends a “bad message after a scathing report” was released in June showing that some of the commission’s money was not spent wisely.
“We’re sending the wrong message in a very austere time,’’ Armstrong said. “I’d be much more tolerant if we were hugely successful, and we’re not.”
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said the commission spent too much money on projects that did not generate jobs or boost salaries. In the past decade, 1,368 grants worth $756 million have been awarded for a variety of projects, including high-speed Internet access in rural areas, walking trails and improvements to the Martinsville Speedway. About $606 million is available for future grants.
State guidelines indicate that a plane trip may be financially justified if a round trip exceeds four hours, more than three people are traveling or the trip is more than 300 miles.