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Palin's office backs charging state for kid travel

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is allowed to charge taxpayers for her children's commercial airline tickets because they represent the state wherever they go with her, the governor's aides said.
Palin Family Travel
Todd Palin, husband of Republican vice president candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, right, holds their daughter Piper, as the Gov. Palin talks, left, before the start of the Iron Dog snowmachine race in Big Lake, Alaska, in Feb. 2007. Al Grillo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is allowed to charge taxpayers for her children's commercial airline tickets because they represent the state wherever they go with her, the governor's aides said Wednesday.

"There's an expectation that the First Family participates in community activities," said Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman. "They are representing the First Family and the state of Alaska."

Leighow and other Palin supporters defended the GOP vice presidential candidate's use of $21,012 in state money to pay for her three daughters' flights, after The Associated Press reported the practice on Tuesday. The AP reported that often the children were not invited to the events the governor attended, but she brought them anyway and charged the government.

The AP also reported that Palin ordered the children's travel expense forms changed in August to add language claiming that they performed official state business on the trips. Alaska law allows governors to charge the state for their family's travel if they conduct state business. State Finance Director Kim Garnero said the governor's staff has the authority to make that determination.

Children reportedly had no role
But event organizers told the AP they were surprised when the girls showed up, and some said they had no role.

In all, the state paid for 64 one-way and 12 round-trip commercial flights for her daughters Bristol, 17, Willow, 14, and 7-year-old Piper. In some cases, Palin also charged the state for the girls' hotel rooms. Palin did not file travel expenses for her oldest son, Track, or her infant son, Trig, who was born this past spring.

Most of the commercial flights ferried the daughters between the state capital in Juneau and Anchorage, which is 600 miles away and about 40 miles from the Palin home in Wasilla, travel records show.

For example, the girls flew to Anchorage from Juneau for the weekend on Feb. 9, 2007, with Palin charging the state $1,556.40 for their flights. Palin listed the girls' attendance as "official starter" of the Iron Dog snowmobile race, which their father has competed in for 14 years.

The state paid the same amount for the three girls to spend a long weekend in Juneau in September 2007. Palin listed "First Family photos" as the official state business for that trip.

Taylor Griffin, a McCain-Palin campaign spokesman, said Palin followed the same practice as other governors whose children join them at functions. He added that Palin could have charged the state for her children's meals, but didn't.

In defense of the travel
Leighow also defended other state-paid trips the girls made. She provided to the AP on Wednesday an e-mail that the governor's office received that invited Bristol to a five-hour New York conference in October 2007 that she attended with her mother. Palin charged the state $1,385.11 for her daughter's flight. They shared a room for four nights in a luxury hotel on Central Park.

But the conference organizer said Bristol was only invited after the governor said she was bringing her.

"We told her we need to know her name so we can send her an invitation," said Mark Block, external affairs director for Newsweek magazine, which hosted the event.

Palin's calendar for one of those days in New York shows Bristol also attended the taping of MTV's "Total Request Live" show, with a note saying "dress: very posh (evening wear)."

Griffin also said Palin reimbursed the state for the cost of two friends who accompanied Bristol and Willow on a flight on a state airplane in May 2007.

John Glass, the deputy public safety commissioner, said he was not aware of the friends' flight until The Associated Press brought it to his attention, but the governor has the right to bring others on the plane.

"She has the ability to authorize people to travel with her," Glass said. "That's the end of the story."

More than two dozen flights
The flight that included the Palin children's friends was among more than two dozen taken by the family on the state plane at a total cost of about $55,000. The family purchased commercial airline tickets when they couldn't get access to that plane, which is used primarily to transport prisoners and law enforcement officials. The plane costs $971 an hour to operate.

Bill Tandeske, who served as public safety commissioner from 2003 to 2006 during Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration, said the state plane should be used for official business only, not like a family station wagon.

"Is the use of a state asset for the governor's husband and kids appropriate? I suggest not," Tandeske said.