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LAS VEGAS -- Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons will be leaving office in January after a single term that was characterized by economic calamity that led to drastic cuts in state budgets and services.
Few areas of state government escaped the fiscal axe, but records show the governor's staff was less than frugal when it came to travel.
No one from the governor's office, including Gibbons, would speak about what they spend on travel. And they were not very happy about giving 8 News NOW the records. It took several requests to get what we asked for, and even now we do not have all of it. But from the looks of the records we do have, it appears all the budget cutting and proclamations about fiscal restraint were fine for the rest of the state, just not for the governor's office.
Governor Gibbon's travel habits have made news before, but mostly because of his travel companions. Records requests found no evidence that the governor used state funds to pay for his girlfriend to attend a National Governors Association event in Washington, but getting the records wasn't easy and those received were all mixed up, like a shuffled deck of cards.
Gibbons' legal counsel said in an email "It's more fun that way." So let the fun begin.
"It appears Governor Gibbons and his staff's adherence to a policy of fiscal discipline applies to everyone but their own office," said Geoffrey Lawrence with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.
Lawrence works for NPRI, a conservative think tank and fiscal watchdog, which has been supportive of Gibbons' policies in the past. After reviewing the travel records, he minced no words.
"The governor's staff has traveled a lot. I don't see how they can legitimately make the excuse that amount of travel is warranted," he said.
Included in Gibbons' records are items you won't see on your own credit card bill, such as "dinner with the princess of Romania," followed by "trip to Iraq." One standout item was a December 2007 trip by Gibbons and staff to Mexico City and on to Guadalajara, which cost thousands per person, per stop.
Gibbons rarely misses a chance to hobnob with other governors, whether in Washington, D.C. or Kalispell, Montana. When he visits Las Vegas, which is often, Gibbons pays a regular rate at the Venetian or Palazzo, hotels owned by his political patron. He takes a lot of rural road trips to places like Elko or Ely, where he pays for modest accommodations and often does not seek reimbursement for meals.
Records show Gibbons and at least two staff members flew to Las Vegas for the funeral of former Governor Kenny Guinn, a bitter rival of Gibbons.
Top staffers have made San Diego one of their favorite travel destinations, including stays at the ritzy Hotel Del Coronado, where they learned about California tourism.
"The governor and his staff's job, the majority of that takes place in the state capital where they interact with agencies and the legislature. To travel outside of Carson City should be fairly irregular," said Lawrence.
But it isn't. Gibbons and top staffers travel a lot between Carson City and Las Vegas, even though Gibbons has an office and staff down here.
In addition to all those airline tickets, what jumps out most from the travel records are per diem payments -- reimbursement for meals and other expenses while staffers are traveling. In a nutshell, the records show staffers take the maximum per diem almost every time. Taxpayers cut them checks to cover $61 per day for food, plus money for rooms and other expenses.
For Communications Director Dan Burns, every work day is a travel day. Burns, a former TV newsman, lives in Las Vegas but commutes to Carson City. Every day he works there the public pays for his hotel, plus $61 to cover his meals, which can amount to an extra $300 a week in addition to his base salary of $109,000. For the meals, no receipts are required.
"Sixty-one dollars a day, every day, seems to be to excessive. There's no receipt to back up the expenses, so it may be they are not spending that amount, just pocketing the excess from the state as reimbursement. I don't spend that much on food. I might spend that in a week, not in a day," said Lawrence.
Some staffers who use taxis take the maximum for each trip and the maximum allowable mileage if they drive. Again, no receipts are required.
An internal memo shows that when a top aide to Gibbons, Robin Reedy, did not charge the highest amount for a dinner, a memo was sent asking if she wanted to change the figure.
"She was claiming about half the dinner expense she was allowed and they wanted to make sure she didn't want the full amount," said Lawrence. "This sets a very poor example for the incoming administration."
Most amazing of all was the penny pinching when it came to seeking reimbursements for senior staff -- billing the state for as little as $2.50 to cover a fee that was paid so they could get a free airline ticket.
Just this week, the governor announced his plan for what he called an Open Government Initiative to make sure the public knows what goes on behind closed doors. He could start with his own office, which did not want to give up the travel records and eventually charged 8 News NOW $400 to get copies.