JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials appeared to lack justification for buying a new $5.6 million airplane frequently used by Gov. Jay Nixon, the state auditor said Tuesday.
Auditor Tom Schweich said Missouri's existing passenger planes were already underutilized, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol did not do a formal written analysis before purchasing the new plane in December.
"It looks to me like it was wasteful," said Schweich, a Republican. "When I look at the data, I don't see how you could justify a new plane."
The Highway Patrol, which operates aircraft both for its own law enforcement purposes and for use by other state officials, defended both the need for an additional plane and the decision to buy a new one instead of a used one.
"We conducted a thorough analysis of our needs and usage of the plane before we purchased it, and we got it at a reduced price," said patrol spokesman Capt. Tim Hull.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request show that Nixon — often accompanied by staff or Cabinet members — was the only elected state official to use the new plane during the first three months that the state owned it. He flew on it 21 times at a cost of more than $48,000 from Jan. 23 to March 15. The AP's request did not cover more recent months.
Nixon, a Democrat, has drawn bipartisan criticism about his use of the state plane since taking office in January 2009. He initially billed other state agencies for the cost of his flights, which led legislators to insert wording into budget bills aimed at limiting that tactic.
Nixon in January defended the purchase of the new plane as a good long-term investment for law enforcement and safety, but his office has generally referred questions about it to the patrol.
The audit examined the use of five state passenger planes, two operated by the Highway Patrol and three by the Conservation Department. Just two of those planes — one run by the patrol and the other by the conservation agency —have pressurized cabins, which are more comfortable for passengers and allow planes to fly at a higher altitude and higher speeds.
The audit said there were 58 days during 2012 on which both pressurized passenger planes were in use but 159 days on which neither was used, and 113 days on which none of the five planes flew. There were no days on which all five planes were used.
"Our analysis of the flight usage data indicates existing state airplanes were underutilized prior to the purchase of the additional new airplane," the audit says.
The patrol said in a written response included in the audit that — although it didn't document such instances — there were many times when agencies wanted to use planes on the same day, meaning some flight requests were denied. The patrol said it doesn't use the Conservation Department planes in such circumstances.
Schweich said it doesn't make sense for the two agencies to operate their aircraft fleets separately, and the agencies should at least share planes on days when demand is high.
The audit also questioned why the patrol bought a new plane instead of a cheaper used one.
The patrol said it wanted a King Air 250 because the twin-engine turbo-prop plane operates similarly to other Hawker Beechcraft Corp. planes that it already owns, thus reducing the necessary pilot training. It said it got the new plane at a discounted price that included the installation of extra seats and an extensive warranty, among other things.
Those two additional seats — giving the plane a nine-passenger capacity, plus two crew members — were installed when the plane was flown back to a Hawker Beechcraft facility in Wichita, Kan., in mid-March, Hull said. While the new plane was gone for two weeks, Nixon flew on the patrol's older King Air 90C model.
Attorney General Chris Koster was the only other elected state official to use the patrol's planes during the first three months of this year. On both occasions, he flew on the older plane instead of the new one.