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High-flying Christie draws fire over ‘Coptergate’

Gov. Christie often jokes that his favorite part of being governor is that the Lincoln Tunnel closes when he travels through on trips to New York City.

Gov. Christie often jokes that his favorite part of being governor is that the Lincoln Tunnel closes when he travels through on trips to New York City.

But another travel perk - via another mode of transportation - saw him labeled as an elitist and a hypocrite across national and social media Wednesday.

Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, flew in a brand-new $12.5 million state police helicopter Tuesday afternoon from Trenton to North Jersey to see their son play in a high school baseball playoff game. They took off after the fifth inning and flew on to the governor's mansion in Princeton, where Christie dined with presidential campaign fund-raisers from Iowa.

The images of the Christies landing on a field adjacent to the baseball diamond - and reportedly riding in a black car with tinted windows the final 300 feet to the bleachers - fit the caricature that political opponents have drawn of a budget-cutter with no sense of shared sacrifice in tough economic times.

Christie has built a national profile from an overarching message of fiscal conservatism by slashing funding for education, eliminating money for family-planning clinics, and, just last month, vetoing spending on two $800 dinners by officials of the quasi-public South Jersey Port Corp. in Camden.

Breathlessly documented in the ensuing fallout on major news outlets and Twitter, where the trip was dubbed Coptergate, the moment handed ammunition to Christie critics such as the New Jersey Education Association.

The state's largest teachers' union had taken to the sky itself over the Memorial Day weekend, chartering a plane to fly over the Jersey Shore with a banner promoting the website, which features a monocle-wearing, cigar-chomping - and no doubt helicopter-flying - millionaire.

Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), a possible challenger to Christie if he runs for reelection in 2013, said that Christie's flight Tuesday was "possibly" illegal and that he should release all records about his use of helicopters, while directing the attorney general to conduct an independent investigation.

Michael Drewniak, Christie spokesman, said the governor does not reimburse the state for "security and travel."

"The use of air travel has been extremely limited and appropriate," Drewniak said.

The Democratic State Committee chairman, John Wisniewski, who is also an assemblyman, said: "New Jersey taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for Hypocrisy One, the governor's state-funded personal helicopter, as Chris Christie tries to look presidential for his wealthy Iowa contributors."

Wisniewski was referring to the dinner Christie hosted after the ball game for Iowa Republican businessmen, who asked Christie to run for president. The governor declined to run in 2012, according to Bruce Rastetter, a hog-and-ethanol baron who led the delegation.

"We came away with the impression, even more so, that this guy has great leadership skills, is both a quality person and quality governor, and would make a great president," Rastetter said Wednesday. He said he didn't see how Christie arrived for their meeting.

Even those who would be expected to support the governor, such as Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, called out Christie on Wednesday.

She blogged: "Of course the car and even the helicopter are not huge costs compared to the billions the nation and states spend - but it is an example. Examples matter. Is it the example politicians want to be giving?"

Christie's Coptergate is not unique in the annals of New Jersey political history. Gov. Thomas Kean was criticized for using police helicopters by Gov. Jim Florio, and then Florio used them himself - only to be criticized by his successor, Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, who vowed to sell them but instead used them.

An investigation by Gannett's New Jersey newspapers in 2002 revealed that Gov. James E. McGreevey used the helicopters 272 times during his first 10 months in office, including for personal purposes such as a flight to a lawmaker's wedding. He then had the Democratic State Committee reimburse the state for 14 flights at a cost of $18,200.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine avoided the problem by tapping into his considerable wealth and paying for private flights himself.

Christie did not appear in public Wednesday. But the superintendent of the State Police released a statement defending his boss and saying there was no additional cost to transport the governor, because the helicopter would have been in the air regardless of the governor's needs. The police, he said, fly daily homeland-security missions and use flight time for training.

"Any flights transporting the governor would be subordinated to priority needs for our aircraft including rescue and emergent law enforcement missions," he added.

Christie has been aboard helicopters 35 times since taking office, Fuentes said, "including aerial surveys of flood and storm damage."

Christie can find further support from the findings of a gubernatorial commission, led by Whitman after Corzine nearly died in a car crash in 2007, that recommended governors use aircraft more often.

Christie has found himself criticized for similar excess in the past. As U.S. attorney, Christie spent $2,176 more than his budgeted rate on hotel rooms, going over the government rate as much as $242 per night, according to a report released last year by the Department of Justice's inspector general.

The state Sierra Club hit Christie on the environmental front, saying a single turbine helicopter gets about 2.35 miles per gallon of gasoline, compared to a large SUV, like a Chevy Suburban, which gets 15 miles per gallon on the highway. The trip between Trenton and Montvale, where the game was held, would have been about 80 miles on the road. It would have been an additional 70 miles back to Princeton.

Yet the flight cost about $2,500 for one total hour of operation, including gasoline, said State Police Sgt. Stephen Jones. Still, the pilots would have likely been in the air regardless, because the pilots need to log hours on five new aircraft the state has ordered, including the Agusta helicopter Christie flew on.

Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett has been in the air three times on taxpayers' dollars since assuming office in January. Corbett flew on the state plane from Harrisburg to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh at a cost of $4,132.68, according to the state website. A spokesman, Kevin Harley, says Corbett also used a helicopter twice - to visit the scene of a gas explosion in Allentown and to survey the Marcellus Shale blowout in Bradford County.

Politics aside, the Christies had a good day Tuesday. The Green Wave of Delbarton School of Morristown, the private Catholic prep school that catcher and gubernatorial son Andrew Christie attends, beat the Green Knights of St. Joseph Regional High School. The score was 7-2.