Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe paid for a state-owned airplane to take him to New York last week to attend a U2 concert where Bill and Hillary Clinton were praised by the band's lead singer in front of thousands of fans at Madison Square Garden.
The trip, which was not mentioned in the governor's public calendar, highlights both his continued close friendship with the Clintons as well as a new pay-your-own-way mentality by Virginia's elected officials in the wake of a scandal involving McAuliffe's predecessor.
When asked about the trip by The Associated Press, McAuliffe's office would say only that the governor went on a state-owned airplane and that he paid for the flight costs himself. But the governor's staff declined to immediately provide additional details about the trip, including the total cost and who accompanied the governor, saying it was treating those questions as a public records request.
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Pictures on social media accounts appear to show McAuliffe sitting next to the Clintons at the July 31 concert, during which lead singer Bono praised the former president and current Democratic presidential candidate for their efforts fighting AIDS.
McAuliffe's staff did not respond when asked to confirm he and the Clintons went to the concert together.
McAuliffe has a long and colorful history with the Clintons. He was a major fundraiser for the former president and was chairman of Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential run. In 1999, he helped the Clintons secure a mortgage on a home because the couple had massive legal debts at the time.
As governor, McAuliffe has tried to temper expectations that he will play a major role in Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid, saying his focus is on improving Virginia's economy. But McAuliffe is expected to play a key role in helping a potential Clinton candidacy win Virginia, a swing state. Clinton headlined a recent fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Virginia, and McAuliffe is scheduled to attend a Clinton campaign event Sunday in New Hampshire.
Virginia currently has two Beechcraft King Air 350s available for state employees, according to the Virginia Department of Aviation. The planes, which can seat 11, cost $985 per hour of flight time.
Randall Burdette, executive director of the aviation department, said McAuliffe was not obligated to reimburse the state for the use of the plane because “he performs his duties 24 hours a day 7 days a week.”
Virginia enacted a new law in 2008 that makes it a felony for state officials to use state property worth more than $1,000, including the labor of other state employees, for personal use “without lawful authorization.” But Burdette said his department is authorized to grant that authorization for the governor's trips.
In the past, Virginia governors who wanted to ride a private plane for personal reasons needed only to ask a rich friend or corporation. Former Gov. Mark Warner, for instance, listed more than $3,000 of “personal air travel” from a real estate firm on his financial disclosure forms.
But those days are gone after former Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted last year of illegally accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams.
In response to that scandal, McAuliffe signed an executive order when he first took office last year limiting the value of gifts he and his staff could receive to $100, including travel on private planes. The General Assembly passed a similar cap on gifts to state lawmakers earlier this year.