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Chafee Travel Costs RI Thousands in 2013

Thursday, April 24, 2014

 

Governor Lincoln Chafee logged in 20 days of travel out of state for official business last year on a busy itinerary that took him from the Windy City to remote Quebec and cost taxpayers at least $10,382, according to documents provided in response to a public records request.

In January, Chafee appeared with Suze Orman for an event on marriage equality in New York City. In February, he dined with the Obamas at the White House while in town for the National Governors Association winter meeting. And last September, Chafee trekked up to Quebec, where he took a $2,000 helicopter tour of a remote hydro-power station and spent a night at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, a resort hotel with amenities that include a casino, electric vehicle charging stations, and Jacuzzis in its higher-end rooms.

Chafee’s traveling habits have garnered attention recently after GoLocalProv reported last month that he would be attending a ski weekend in Big Sky, Montana, sponsored by the Democratic Governors Association. Chafee departed on Friday, March 21—the same day that the FBI and State Police raided the Statehouse office of former House Speaker Gordon Fox.

As term nears end, traveling increases

This month and early into May, Chafee was scheduled to visit three out-of-state universities in Denver, Virginia, and New York and go on a five-day trade mission to Italy and Ireland, according to his office.

The Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu where Chafee stayed in Quebec.

“It does seem that he is taking more trips that usual, particularly on the academic circuit, but frankly, given the political situation, he doesn’t have a lot of leverage to be a player in what’s going on,” said Maureen Moakley, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island.

In addition to the constitutional strictures that make Rhode Island governors among the weakest state executives, Moakley said Chafee’s ability to wield influence in the Statehouse has been further diminished by his decision to not seek re-election. That decision, made last year, came after he switched to the Democratic Party, in which he does not have deep roots, she noted.

What Chafee may lack in constitutional power, he has not been able to make up through the bully pulpit that comes with being Governor, Moakley added. “Given his quirky style, he really doesn’t know how to use the bully pulpit,” she said.

That may explain why nearly Chafee’s periodic absences during last year’s legislative session didn’t get much attention, Moakley suggested. “He was away but nobody seemed to notice,” she said.

Full cost of trips exceeds $10k

In all, Chafee made a dozen trips in 2013. Some were day trips to Millbury, Boston, and Lowell in Massachusetts and New York City. Others required longer absences. Counting departure and return days—usually early mornings and evenings, respectively—Chafee logged in 20 travel days last year.

The spillway for the Robert-Bourassa generating station Chafee visited in Quebec.

That does not include vacation time. When asked how many out-of-state vacation days Chafee took last year, his office declined to provide a number. “The Governor takes a reasonable amount of vacation days. Some are out of state; some are in Rhode Island,” spokeswoman Faye Zuckerman wrote in an e-mail.

Dozens of pages of travel records indicate that Chafee is often accompanied by his staff, including at least one member of his State Police security detail—even on out-of-state trips, like Quebec and Milwaukee. In one case, a state trooper drove down in a state-owned vehicle to meet Chafee in Washington, DC, taking him out of state for two additional days.

When asked to confirm whether Chafee is always accompanied by a state trooper when on an official state trip, Zuckerman declined to respond. “The Governor’s office doesn’t discuss publicly anything related to his security detail,” she said. (Zuckerman gave the same response when asked why a state trooper drove down to Washington, DC.)

Chafee’s security detail accounted for about $3,500 of last year’s expenses in terms of hotel stays and flights, state records show.

But, because the provided documents do not include the cost of salary and any overtime for state troopers, the actual cost of Chafee’s trips is likely much higher than the $10,000. Zuckerman said that information was not available from the Governor’s office and would have to be requested from the State Police. The total cost of Chafee’s state security detail in 2013 was $164,752, including salary and benefits, but a breakdown of the costs associated with his travels was not available in time for publication.

“The cost to taxpayers of the Governor’s travel is a concern, especially as he must be accompanied by a state trooper. More disturbing, however, is that the Governor chose to travel out of state on average once per month despite the serious problems facing the state,” said Monique Chartier, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Taxpayers group.

An image of Montreal, one of the cities Chafee passed through during his trip to Quebec.

From rail to power, trips address range of issues

Most of Chafee’s out-of-state destinations were to conferences that address a range of public policy issues. In January, the issues were the impact the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) has on gay couples, at an event at New York University, and pension reform, in a meeting with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in Boston.

At least two trips were related to transportation. One was a two-hour train tour of the Blackstone Valley last November, ending in Millbury, Mass., meant to draw attention to five substandard rail freight bridges along the Blackstone Valley—although the event was closed to the press. The next month, Chafee was a featured speaker at the 2013 Transportation Conference of the National Corridors Initiative.

Energy is another recurrent theme. On May 10, Chafee was the opening speaker at the ISO New England Energy Conference. Chafee’s concern with high energy costs—including high electricity rates for Rhode Islanders—was also the reason behind his trip to Quebec for the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premieres, according to Zuckerman. She said that Chafee sees “clean energy”— like that from the hydro power plant he toured—as a way to lower costs. (She also noted that the state ethics rules barred the company for paying for the helicopter tour.)

Chafee attended four governors conferences

An art museum Chafee visited while in Milwaukee last year.

In fact, conferences with fellow state governors were the reason for a third of Chafee’s trips last year. “[T]he Governor said that during the campaign that he would be involved in the Governor-related organizations. The Governor works closely with other Governors as well as the Eastern Canadian Premiers to develop policy solutions to issues that are of great and mutual interest to Rhode Island and our region,” Zuckerman said.

Gary Sasse, the administration director under Chafee’s predecessor, Don Carcieri, said it is “certainly appropriate” for the Governor to attend out-of-state meetings with peers. “Part of the business of being Governor is to keep in touch with your counterparts,” Sasse said. (Sasse was not able to recall how often Carcieri himself traveled.)

“You get ideas. You form alliances. You find out what people are doing in other states,” added Moakley, describing the benefits of attending conferences with other governors.

While those trips are entirely “justifiable,” she described Chafee’s trips to college campuses as “curious.” While universities often pay for those trips, it still means time away from state business, Moakley said. Three of Chafee’s trips last year were to universities, including New York University, the Institute of Politics at Chicago University, and Princeton University, where he attended a debate hosted by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, a student organization.

“Governor Chafee believes all engagement with students—including his visits with undergraduates at the University of Chicago and Princeton—benefits Rhode Island because it shines a positive light on our state and encourages young people to consider bringing their skills and talents to Rhode Island,” Zuckerman said.

Is economic development a priority?

Princeton is one of three out-of-state universities the Governor visited last year.

GoLocalProv asked the Governor’s office if any of the 2013 trips were related to the state’s still-struggling economy.

Zuckerman pointed to several examples—though none from 2013. In November 2012, she said Chafee went to France to meet with officials at the Dassault Systèmes SIMULIA Corp. and “encourage them to do business in Rhode Island.” She described the meeting as a productive discussion about where the company’s future offices would be located in Rhode Island. (On August 23, 2013, the company told Chafee it would be moving to a new location in Johnston, according to Zuckerman.)

She also pointed to Chafee’s trips in past years to Baltimore, Houston, and Pittsburgh. “Since those visits, he has been working closely with our premier higher education institutions and businesses to build the ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘meds and eds’ in Rhode Island,” Zuckerman said.

Chafee certainly has his pick of out-of-state events to attend, with his office receiving many more out-of-state invitations than he accept. For just this month and the next, for the four trips he is making, he had to decline invitations for 14 others, according to Zuckerman, who declined to disclose any information about those invitations.

Chafee was originally planning five trips for this month and next, but the fifth—a trip with Providence’s economic development director, Jim Bennett to meet with a Portland, Oregon business considering a move to Rhode Island—has been canceled, according to Zuckerman. Of the remaining four trips, three are to universities and one is an overseas trade mission.

With the state dogged by the highest unemployment rate in the nation, some say Chafee’s decisions about whether to travel—and where to go if he must—should be centered on what’s in the best interest of growing the state economy.

“If the state were humming along, if unemployment was low, business was buzzing and we had a robust tax base with no budget deficits that would be one thing,” Chartier said. “However, just the opposite is the case. The Governor needed to be here and focused on solutions for the state’s serious economic problem. Instead, he was traveling last year on average once per month.

“Worse, his travel was not limited to the time of year when the General Assembly was out of session nor, it is clear from the itineraries, was he seeking solutions to the state’s serious economic problems on most of these trips. All of this shows an indifference on the part of Governor Chafee to the state’s problems and to its residents that borders on disrespectful,” Chartier added.

Stephen Beale can be reached at bealenews@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews

 

Related Slideshow: Gov. Lincoln Chafee Trip List

Below is a snapshot of the dozen out-of-state trips Governor Lincoln Chafee made in 2013 on official state business. For each trip, the purpose, dates, destination, accompanying staff, and cost to the state, if any, is listed. GoLocalProv compiled the Governor’s travel schedule based upon documents provided in response to a public records request.

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