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House lawmakers, staff log tens of thousands of miles in government cars on Arizona trips

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On Thursday, Oct. 1, House Sergeant-at-Arms Billy Cloud went to the Arizona Department of Administration building and picked up the keys to a state-owned car. It was clearly marked, as all state fleet vehicles are, with a sticker noting it is “for official use only.”

On the forms to rent the car, Cloud stated his destination was Tucson. That afternoon, Cloud drove House Speaker David Gowan home to Cochise County, where Cloud also lives.

Nineteen days later, when he returned the car, Cloud had put more than 4,800 miles on the odometer.

That is farther than a person can drive in any one direction in the continental United States, and would be roughly the equivalent of taking a road trip from Seattle to Miami, then turning north and driving to Boston.

Cloud’s October rental was the longest trip in a state-owned vehicle out of more than 10,000 trips detailed in a Department of Administration database covering all state car rentals from July 2013 through October 2015.

It was one of seven times Cloud rented a state car over a four-month-period starting in June 2015, during which he traveled more than 11,000 miles.

The database shows that use of state vehicles has skyrocketed recently in the House of Representatives, where a handful of lawmakers and top staffers have driven tens of thousands of miles in the last few months, at no personal cost because the House pays the Department of Administration for the rentals.

That’s a striking contrast to the chamber’s rare reliance on the state fleet in past years. In 2014, two House staffers rented vehicles and drove a total of 674 miles. In 2015, House staffers and lawmakers have racked up more than 24,000 miles in 35 different rentals.

The Senate, by comparison, hasn’t rented a single car in the more than two years covered in the database.

A large part of Cloud’s job is to drive Gowan to events related to his job as speaker.

But on Oct. 5, Gowan officially announced he was a candidate in the Republican primary for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District.

While Cloud’s public calendar was nearly blank for the 19 days in early October when he rented the state car, Gowan’s public schedule was jam-packed with events, including many campaign events.

In the weeks surrounding his congressional campaign announcement, Gowan was zig-zagging across the massive CD1, which is nearly as large as the state of Iowa. It spans from Four Corners and Flagstaff in the north, down to through Casa Grande and the northern suburbs of Tucson. In his travels, Gowan spoke to Republican groups and voters in Tuba City, Casa Grande, Flagstaff and Safford.

Public records and social media show Gowan wasn’t alone on some of those long drives.

The records show Cloud, a public employee, rented a state-owned vehicle and drove Gowan to several political events in CD1, hundreds of miles from the Capitol or his legislative district in southern Arizona.

Gowan declined to comment on the travels, but House Republican spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the events were strictly related to his job as speaker, not his campaign for Congress.

“Gowan always says he’s the speaker for the whole state of Arizona, and I think it’s been pretty clear that he is. He goes all over the state. He tries to speak at and appear at as many things as he can when he gets invited, and he wishes he could do more,” Grisham said.

She said Gowan and his staffers are very careful about not using state resources for campaign events, and frequently have discussions about whether events could be construed as campaign-related.

But Tom Ryan, a Chandler-based personal injury attorney who has made a name for himself as a crusader against Arizona political corruption, reviewed some of the records obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times. He disagreed that the events could be considered anything but campaign-related.

Ryan said the violations of state law are so “stunning” that he intends to bring a legal complaint against Gowan and several of his close allies. He accused them of violating not only the laws governing the use of the state vehicle fleet, but also violating the state’s prohibition on using government resources for a campaign purpose.

Glimpses of Gowan’s travels

Gowan’s official calendar, and the official calendars of several other lawmakers, were largely blacked-out by House attorneys before they were turned over in response to a public records request from the Arizona Capitol Times.

The staff attorneys said the redactions were made for two reasons. The first is to keep confidential the topics of meetings under a legal precedent called “legislative privilege.” Those redactions are generally succinct on the calendar, disclosing who the lawmaker was meeting with but not what they were meeting about.

The other reason given for the redactions was because many of the events in the calendars were not official state business, and therefore not subject to the state public records laws. Those redactions covered every word over days, and even weeks, of the calendars for Gowan and several other lawmakers.

But after the Capitol Times noted many of the events Cloud drove Gowan to were redacted from the calendar, and therefore not considered state business by the chamber’s own attorneys, Grisham provided a new, slightly less-redacted version of the speaker’s calendar.

Even redacted, the records contained several glimpses of where Gowan and Cloud were traveling during Cloud’s 4,800 mile rental. And social media postings from Gowan’s official congressional campaign account show that the speaker was in full campaign mode at some of those stops.

On Oct. 8, for example, three days after he announced his candidacy, Gowan’s calendar states Cloud drove him to Flagstaff. In the morning, Gowan had a radio interview, in which he discussed his newly launched campaign for Congress for about half of the allotted time.

For breakfast, he met with business leaders and local politicians. From his campaign Twitter account, Gowan posted a group photo of the meeting, saying he was “listening to voters and talking about my vision to make DC accountable.” He ended the tweet with hashtags of his campaign slogan and the congressional district: “#RespectTheWest” and “#AZ01.”

For lunch, he again met with business and community leaders, and tweeted a photo of the event the next day. Grisham acknowledged Cloud took the photos.

And while he was on the radio in Flagstaff discussing his congressional campaign, Gowan told voters to come meet him at the Flagstaff Tea Party meeting that night. That meeting, however, was one of the many campaign events redacted from Gowan’s official calendar, because it was not related to his “official business.”

But Grisham said even that Tea Party event was official business, as Gowan was invited there to address the crowd as the speaker, not as a congressional candidate.

Grisham said the original redactions were made by House attorneys who were erring on the side of caution, and only show that the attorneys thought the events could be unrelated to state business, not that the events are definitively not official business.

“Staff did make mistakes,” she said, noting they are discussing internally how to ensure the chamber is more transparent.

But relating to Gowan’s Flagstaff trip in a state car, Grisham said the speaker did nothing wrong.

“Everything he did was official. And, in fact, there was a veteran’s site that he visited, and you’re going to see there is a priority request in the budget from the speaker for the veteran’s home (in Flagstaff),” she said.

On Oct. 17, Gowan’s calendar states Cloud drove him to Tuba City to ride in a float for the Navajo Nation Fair, where at least one other Republican CD1 candidate was also working the crowd. Gowan’s official campaign Twitter posted a group picture of the candidate with then-Democratic Sen. Carlyle Begay, Arizona Republican Party Chair Robert Graham and several Navajo Republicans.

Tuba City is more than 400 highway miles from Gowan’s hometown of Sierra Vista, and is deep in the solidly-Democratic Navajo Nation, where Republican lawmakers rarely visit – unless they’re running for Congress in CD1, where Navajo votes can swing the election.

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But Grisham said Gowan was invited to speak, again, as the House speaker and not a congressional candidate. And she said he has, in fact, been to Tuba City before, on other official state business.

The records show several other examples of Gowan hitting the expansive campaign trail during the 19 days Cloud drove 4,800 miles in a state car, but the records are so heavily redacted, it’s impossible to see who, if anyone, drove him to the events. Grisham said Cloud frequently drives the speaker to events, but he wouldn’t do so in a state-owned vehicle if there were any question as to whether the event is campaign-related.

For one campaign event in Casa Grande on Oct. 5, for example, Grisham said Gowan’s campaign consultant, Constantin Querard, drove him because it was clearly a campaign event.

Grisham stressed that you cannot separate the man from the job, and said everywhere Gowan goes, he’s asked about his congressional campaign.

The line between speaker and congressional candidate can be blurry. But some lawmakers are more careful than others about keeping their state business and election-related business separate. Some lawmakers won’t even casually discuss their election plans with reporters in their state offices. Others see no problem with that.

The issue arises almost every campaign season, and in December, the House Rules Office sent out an email reminding lawmakers to be extra careful.

The email warns that lawmakers and their staff are prohibited from using state resources, including computers, email, phones and House conference rooms, for anything campaign-related.

“Moreover, during work hours, House employees are strictly prohibited from engaging in any type of campaign or political party work. Members (of the House) should be careful not to inadvertently request assistance from staff that may relate to a campaign,” the email states.

Driving Gowan to his official meetings is a large part of Cloud’s job responsibilities. One of Gowan’s first acts after becoming speaker-elect in November 2014 was to hire Cloud, a longtime friend, onetime Cochise County sheriff candidate, former Department of Public Safety officer and Tombstone marshal, at a salary of $80,000.

The former sergeant-at-arms earned $40,000, but Grisham said at the time of the hire that the pay increase was justified because Cloud would also be working a security detail, protecting the speaker and transporting him to and from events related to his official duties.

The House speaker and Senate president are automatically assigned a Department of Public Safety officer to transport them to, and protect them at, public events. But Gowan’s public schedule shows that over the course of his first year as speaker, Gowan has frequently eschewed his assigned DPS officer in favor of Cloud driving him to and from state-related meetings.

The speaker of the House has full control over the chamber’s purse strings. Since becoming speaker, Gowan has built a reputation of traveling heavily-staffed, and on the state’s dime.

When he and Senate President Andy Biggs flew to Washington, D.C., to watch U.S. Supreme Court arguments on the redistricting case in March 2015, for example, Gowan flew cross-country with an entourage of the House attorney, the House GOP spokesperson, a policy adviser and his deputy chief of staff. The state paid the bill for all of them.

Biggs paid his own way to D.C. and didn’t bring even the Senate attorney, who was one of the Legislature’s lawyers in the case.

Strict rules for government vehicles

Before Gowan became speaker, it was rare for a lawmaker to rent a state car.

From July 2013 to April 2015, Gowan was the only lawmaker in either chamber to rent a state car – he went for a nearly 2,300 mile drive in July 2013. Grisham couldn’t say where the speaker went on that 2013 trip.

Following the 2015 legislative session, however, use of the state fleet by House lawmakers and employees has risen substantially. Gowan, a handful of Republican lawmakers and some top Republican staff members have made frequent use of state-owned vehicles recently, records show.

The state has strict laws governing what public employees and elected officials can, and cannot, do with a state car.

Arizona law says a vehicle owned by the state “shall not be provided to an employee, including an elected official, for the employee’s personal use” and that the cars can only be used “for business purposes only” which does “not include normal commuting to and from the employee’s residence.”

The Department of Administration’s own rules, which are included in an information packet given to everyone who rents a state vehicle, say the cars cannot be used for “personal convenience” and drivers are prohibited from transporting family members or friends.

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The state’s most frequent users of the motor pool system aren’t lawmakers. The top drivers come from other agencies, and two have clocked more than 100,000 on state vehicles since mid-2013. (Graph by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

And rentals are limited to two weeks. During his 19-day rental, the department sent Cloud a letter notifying him he was late to return the vehicle.

While some local governments, such as Cochise County, have installed random vehicle monitoring in their own fleets, the state vehicle fleet has no such technology.

The department doesn’t police the drivers, and takes their stated destination at face value, according to Department of Administration spokesperson Megan Rose. But it does have a phone number and portal on its website to take complaints about misuse of state cars.

In 2015, the department received 29 complaints, though only six of them were about actual state vehicles, Rose said. The rest of the complaints were about cars that belonged to city and county governments. None of the complaints were about cars rented by lawmakers or the legislative staff.

Grisham noted that lawmakers only earn $24,000 per year before their per diem pay and mileage reimbursement, and many drive cars that are unreliable and could break down on a long trip. She noted that lawmakers have every right to use state vehicles for official state business.

But some of the trips by lawmakers are clearly in violation of the law.

Both Cloud and Gowan’s calendars, for example, note that Cloud was driving himself and Gowan to their homes in Cochise County on October 1, just hours after picking up the keys to the state car. Car pool users are prohibited from using them for normal home-to-work commuting.

In addition, Gowan and two of his close allies all took separate state vehicles to San Diego for an annual American Legislative Exchange Conference meeting in July.

House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro and his seatmate, Republican Rep. Darin Mitchell, drove state-owned utility 4x4s to San Diego to attend the ALEC event, and traveled 879 miles and 730 miles on the trips, respectively. Mitchell’s rental lasted only two days, while Montenegro lasted six.

Gowan also headed to the ALEC conference in a state-owned car he rented in his own name. But Gowan traveled roughly three times as many miles as the other lawmakers, clocking 2,349 miles over 12 days.

Grisham said that after ALEC, Gowan took the car to other state related business back in Arizona.

Ryan, the Chandler attorney, criticized ALEC as a secretive corporate lobbying organization that hosts lavish vacations for lawmakers and their families which are paid for by corporate interests attempting to gain favor with state lawmakers. He said driving a state car to the organization’s meeting would very clearly be against the law.

“There’s no way they can claim ALEC is a state event. If ALEC is a state event, I want every (public record) from that conference,” Ryan said.

The state does not pay for lawmakers to attend the conference, and all travel, hotel and conference registration costs are paid for by “scholarships” for lawmakers provided by corporate members of ALEC.

Additionally, Montenegro brought his wife to the conference, even though family members are expressly prohibited from traveling in a state car.

But Montenegro said he asked the House attorney several times if he could drive the state car to ALEC and if he could bring his wife along, and that the House attorney, who has since left the chamber, said it would be OK.

Still being cautious, Montenegro said he called the Department of Administration, and told them his wife was going with him, and asked if it would be OK if she drove. He said the department told him that his wife shouldn’t drive, but didn’t mention that she shouldn’t even be in the car.

“There’s nothing that I want to do in a hidden manner. I called ADOA and asked them: (My wife) is going to be with me. Can she drive? And they said, no, she shouldn’t drive. But I was not told that it wasn’t OK for her to be in the vehicle,” he said.

Rose, the Department of Administration spokeswoman, said the department doesn’t make the call of whether an event is or is not official business, and that the “determination of what qualifies as state business lies within the agency that is paying for the service.”

In other words, it’s ultimately up to the House to decide what qualifies as official House business.

But when the staff attorneys weighed in on what is and isn’t official state business, via the calendar redactions, they were heavy-handed in their determination that many events were not official business.

During some of both Mitchell and Montenegro’s vehicle rentals, House attorneys redacted every item from their calendars.

When Montenegro drove 519 miles between Aug. 19 and 21, every item on his calendar was redacted for those days.

When Mitchell drove 384 miles on July 2 and 3, his calendar was fully redacted for both days. The redactions also cover all of Sept. 11 through 14, when Mitchell drove a state car 381 miles.

In all three cases, Montenegro said, he and his seatmate were in Yuma talking with local elected officials about their legislative priorities and concerns.

And Montenegro noted that the vast majority of the time he drives around his giant district, he does so in his own car on his own dime.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I use my own vehicle to do state and personal business. But on occasion when I’m invited to be a speaker or to meet (with people) as the majority leader with the mayor or council folks or supervisors, I have used (a state car). But that’s seldom and it’s for official reasons,” he said.

Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti’s calendar was also fully redacted for the seven days she drove a state car 392 miles with a stated destination of Prescott.

The cost of public service

The state fleet exists so that state employees and elected officials can borrow the cars and use them for official state business. By sharing vehicles across agencies, the service reduces the total number of vehicles the state needs, Rose said.

And many of the 35 rentals by the House this year seem to fall squarely within the bounds of “official use.”

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Though lawmakers can use the state’s motor pool, other agencies use the vehicles much more often. The chart above shows which agencies put the most miles on state motor pool cars, from the Department of Education to the Board of Barbers. (Graph by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Mitchell, who traveled almost 3,200 miles on a state car between July and October 2015, spent many of those miles driving around his district, which spans from Yuma to Litchfield Park. It was the same for Montenego, who totaled more than 2,400 miles.

Lawmakers frequently have to travel very long distances to meetings across sometimes huge legislative districts. And they usually pay for that travel from their own pockets.

Grisham said lawmakers can claim mileage for driving to official meetings across their district. But several lawmakers, including Montenegro, said they didn’t realize that was allowed, and usually just cover the costs themselves.

In state-owned vehicles, the lawmakers pay nothing themselves. Instead, the taxpayers pay the cost of their rentals, and cover their gas. But still, Grisham noted, it’s often slightly cheaper to rent a state car than to reimburse lawmakers for their mileage.

The Department of Administration billed the House almost $8,000 for rentals between January and October this year, including gas.

The department’s rates are slightly lower than an inexpensive rental car company. Cloud’s 19-day trip, for example, cost the House $494, not including gas. Enterprise gave a quote of $690 for a similar car over the same number of days, not including gas.

Former Republican lawmaker and Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Gould frequently criticized his fellow conservatives during his time in the Legislature for not practicing the small government principles they preach. He never used a state car. In fact, he didn’t even know the state had a fleet of vehicles, and questioned the wisdom of the state maintaining them.

Like many other lawmakers, he said his understanding was that lawmakers could not get mileage reimbursement for trips around their districts.

“The mileage around the district, I didn’t think we were eligible to be reimbursed for that. I mean, it’s political,” he said.

Gould said he ran two cars into the ground over his eight years at the Capitol, driving from his home in Lake Havasu City to Phoenix and around his massive district, which covered almost the entire western border of Arizona.  But in his eyes, that was part of the cost of being a public servant.

“I wouldn’t think that the taxpayers are too keen on (lawmakers using state cars)… And I wouldn’t have taken advantage of that, because I never wanted to take advantage of something that wasn’t available to my constituents,” he said.

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3 comments

  1. Arizona clearly needs ethics and conflict of interest laws with teeth for legislators— free sports tickets–proposing bills that add to your personal business income–driving state vehicles to campaign events. Etc.

  2. This pails in comparison to Chad Campbell and Kyrsten Sinema additionally working for non-profits that take the position of any lobbyist that donates to their 501 (C) 3.

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