(Atlanta) Attorney General Thurbert Baker issued an official opinion today putting an end to the practice of using the state aircraft for personal or political convenience. The ruling came after state agencies and the Office of Attorney General received a number of complaints calling into question the propriety of certain trips made using state aircraft. In addition, today’s ruling sets forth very narrow guidelines for when security considerations can override the general prohibition on when state aircraft may be used for personal or political purposes, but the opinion unequivocally states that such findings cannot be based on mere convenience for the state officials.
The Attorney General’s official opinion makes clear that the general rule is that state law limits public officials use of state aircraft to official state business. Except for limited occasions when security considerations dictate, no authority exists in state law for the use of state aircraft to facilitate personal or political business. Travel for personal or political purposes must be by private means unless the commissioner of public safety has made a rational determination that legitimate security concerns, based on a reasoned threat assessment by the commissioner, require travel on state aircraft. That determination should also consider how travel on a state aircraft, rather than the normally appropriate commercial or private aircraft, addresses those security concerns.
State statutes provide that all state aircraft are for the “proper conduct” of state business. In addition, the Gratuities Clause of the Constitution of Georgia prohibits the use of state assets, including aircraft, unless the state receives a “substantial benefit.” Additionally, the use of state aircraft must be in furtherance of a legitimate state activity authorized in law. Thus, the Gratuities Clause prohibits the use of state aircraft for personal or political purposes, absent an appropriate security need assessment, even if the state is reimbursed for the cost since no “substantial benefit” flows to the state. The opinion goes on to state that, even when the use of state aircraft for a political purpose is deemed necessary by the commissioner of public safety for legitimate and documented security reasons, the Ethics in Government Act requires that the cost of their use be reimbursed.
Finally, based on allegations concerning unlicensed and unauthorized individuals piloting state aircraft, the opinion points out that the unauthorized use of state aircraft may result in personal liability to the state officer or employee using or operating the aircraft because it is activity outside the conduct of state business and would most likely negate any insurance coverage that the state may have on the aircraft in question.
A copy of the full text of the opinion can be obtained at http://www.ganet.org/ago/read.cgi?openval=04-3 .