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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2004

Donated jet flight runs into squall

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - American Electric Power has refused to accept payment for flying U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist on its corporate jet to and from last month's dedication of the Ohio Supreme Court's new home.

Use of the utility's jet to shuttle the chief justice between Washington and Columbus on May 15 at the request of the state court had already raised eyebrows among environmental groups.

Word that the committee that planned the dedication donated the $3,800 budgeted for the flight to the American Red Cross did little to defuse the criticism.

"This illustrates why we have ethics rules in the first place," said Bryan Clark, spokesman for the Sierra Club of Ohio. "While we applaud the [state] Supreme Court for donating funds to the Red Cross, perhaps Justice Rehnquist will reconsider accepting flights on corporate jets in the future."

Catherine Turcer, of Ohio Citizen Action, said the organization will ask the chief justice to recuse himself from a case pending in the federal courts in which AEP and other utilities are being sued over alleged Clean Air Act violations by older coal-burning power plants.

The nation's high court was closed yesterday for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan. It had noted previously that it is the responsibility of event sponsors to provide transportation for Supreme Court justices at speaking engagements.

"The committee did not want to accept a gratuity from AEP," Ohio Supreme Court spokesman Chris Davey said.

"That was never the arrangement. Because they regretfully changed their mind about accepting payment for the service provided, the committee decided the appropriate response was to make the [charitable] donation."

The flight was arranged at the request of Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer. AEP said it declined payment for use of its Columbus-based Hawker jet for two round-trips picking up and returning Chief Justice Rehnquist after learning that doing so would violate Federal Aviation Administration rules for noncommercial flights.

"This was a big event for the community," AEP spokesman Pat D. Hemlepp said. "If the plane hadn't been available, others in the Columbus market would have stepped forward to do the same thing."

No tax dollars were spent on the $62,920 dedication of the 15-story judicial center.

According to the dedication committee's final report, nearly $40,700 was raised from 542 guests who paid $75 each for a post-ceremony luncheon with the chief justice. The rest was covered by pledges from urban bar associations and the architect and general contractor on the restoration and conversion of the former Ohio Departments Building.

Tax dollars, however, are repaying the $85 million debt incurred in renovating the 71-year-old building.

If the court had paid AEP the $3,800, the state court still would have been getting a bargain. The company planned to bill the court strictly for fuel and other flight-specific costs, but not for fixed costs like pilot salaries that would have been incurred regardless of whether the plane left the ground.

"Based on $1,400 in fuel costs [for one round trip], landing fees, and crews, in my experience, they're getting it for lower than the actual cost for the aircraft," said Moshe Hirsch, business manager for Studio Jet Aircraft Charter, a jet transportation broker based in Studio City, Calif.

He said a single round-trip flight between Washington and Columbus would involve about two hours in the air. Hawkers, he said, average about $2,800 an hour.

The state court said a commercial airline was out of the question because of security issues and Chief Justice Rehnquist's knee problems.

"[Chief Justice Rehnquist] just established a study committee to look at the ethical dynamics of the judiciary," Ms. Turcer said. "It's clear to me that he was thinking about this flight. Otherwise, why wouldn't he have taken care of this after the Scalia scandal?"

Justice Antonin Scalia refused to recuse himself from a recently argued case involving Vice President Dick Cheney after it was revealed he had flown aboard an oil company jet arranged by Mr. Cheney for a hunting trip they took together.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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