Third Place Writing – In-Depth


The Cost of Convenience

By Hayley Peterson

On a Tuesday evening in May, University President Michael Adams had a dinner date in Macon with donors.

Adams piled into the University’s twin-engine Super King Air 200 turboprop plane with his assistant Mary McDonald, Provost Arnett Mace, Senior Vice President of External Affairs Tom Landrum and his wife, and external affairs director Greg Daniels, for a 15-minute flight to a city 90 miles from Athens.

At $1,000 an hour, Adams’ flight to dinner and back cost $700. But it costs $45 an hour for the pilot and co-pilot’s time in the air, and $35 an hour for the plane to sit on the tarmac while the party enjoyed its four-and-a-half-hour dinner.

The grand total for dinner in Macon that Tuesday night in May came to $1,363.64, according to documents obtained by The Red & Black.

In one month – from April, 20, 2009 to May 30, 2009 – Adams spent $20,667 on flights. His itinerary included a trip to Destin, Fla., with his wife “to attend SEC meetings and related events,” a trip to Valdosta to play in the South Georgia Golf Classic – and to meet with donors – with Mace, Executive Director of Legal Affairs Stephen Shewmaker and Executive Director of the Office of Development Keith Oelke, and a trip to Memphis for the funeral of a family member.

In 2008, the plane’s primary users – Adams, Georgia football head coach Mark Richt and Athletic Director Damon Evans – racked up $229,831 collectively in airplane use; and that doesn’t include maintenance fees, which has totaled nearly $1.6 million since August 2008.

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So where is all this money coming from?

Almost every dime is paid for by the Athletic Association; and therefore, the plane’s use is primarily restricted to athletics-related activities, according to documents obtained by The Red & Black. The AA bought the plane in 2006 for $1.6 million from a company owned in part by former Bulldog football head coach Ray Goff.

A January 2009 document enumerating the Athletic Association’s “General Staff Procedures” states, “A trip must be over a three hour drive for consideration of private plane usage.”

However, The Red & Black found nearly one out of every three cities visited are located in Georgia – half of which are less than 100 miles from Athens, including Winder, Griffin, Macon, Atlanta, Lawrenceville, Augusta and Blairsville.

“[Georgia is] a big state,” said Tom Jackson, vice president for public affairs. “It’s a matter of economics. Do we want to spend five hours having [Adams] drive down to south Georgia or would it be better to fly him there?”

Jackson said Adams will often try to combine trips and “hit several points around the state” to save time and money. Jackson also noted Adams rarely flies outside the state – because those trips, at $1,000 an hour, would cost much more.

The majority of Adams’ flights are charged to the Athletic Association. Documented reasons for trips include NCAA meetings, SEC conventions and lifts to the Bulldogs’ away games.

In April 2008, Adams charged $11,354 to the AA to take his wife to San Antonio for the Final Four basketball game.

That same month, he dropped $1,548 to fly 178 miles – a three-hour drive – for a Board of Regents meeting in Columbus.

In October 2008, Adams flew to Atlanta to pick up several Regents and, from there, flew to Baton Rouge to watch the Bulldogs take on Louisiana State. The party returned that evening to their respective cities for a grand total of $5,194.

Two weeks later, on the eve of the Georgia-Florida game, gathering the ranks in Jacksonville – which is 200 miles closer to Athens than Baton Rouge – cost three times as much as the trip to LSU.

On the Thursday before the game, Mace, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Tim Burgess, and their wives flew to St. Augustine, Fla. From there, the plane flew to Indianapolis to pick up Adams, Landrum, their wives, and Evans to take them to Jacksonville – and at some point thereafter, the party flew to St. Augustine.

These trips cost $8,485, collectively.

And the trip home? The Mace/Burgess party returned to Athens on Saturday, Nov. 1, while Adams and Landrum stayed until Sunday, returning on a separate flight.

Each flight cost about $3,000, totalling the Georgia-Florida travel tab at $14,400.

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The Athletic Association primarily uses the plane for recruitment efforts, said Claude Felton, associate athletic director, in a phone interview Thursday.

“The No. 1 reason [for use of the plane] from an Athletic Association standpoint is for recruiting, the bulk of which would be football recruitment,” he said. “Occasionally, there would be another sport that could possibly use it, but mostly it will be for football.”

Richt, Bulldog offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and assistant coach John Jancek spent $32,600 on flights in the 30 days leading up to the Feb. 14, 2008 National Signing Day. Richt’s use of the plane after January declined to only one or two flights a month thereafter, including a July 2008 trip where Richt flew with four cheerleaders to Valdosta to visit the Valdosta Bulldog Club. Two weeks later, he visited the Columbus and Chattanooga Bulldog clubs – trips that each cost $2,000.

Other AA employees can use the plane if it is available, and there are time constraints on athletics-related meetings, Felton said.

Evans primarily used the plane for SEC and NCAA meetings in 2008, and his family sometimes accompanied him. In March 2008, Evans took his family to round one of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament in Norfolk, Va., and in May of that year, his family accompanied him to a four-day SEC convention in Destin.

Felton said the Athletic Association does not have a budget set aside for the plane. Instead, costs are charged to employees’ individual budgets.

“Whoever uses the plane from the Athletic Association, the expense comes out of their budget for that trip,” Felton said.

So Richt’s trips related to recruitment are charged to his overall recruitment budget.

“If someone else [other than Richt] uses [the plane] it would come out of their travel budget,” Felton said, noting Evans’ trips. Outside of Georgia, the most visited cities in 2008 were Destin, Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Orlando and the most visited states were Florida, Alabama and Tennessee.

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Adams’ trips not charged to the AA are primarily billed to the Arch Foundation, the University’s major arm of fundraising. Every trip billed to the Foundation must get the Foundation’s approval.

Such trips have included a $6,882 flight to Houston for a “development-related dinner,” a $7,879 flight to Dallas for a “National Presence Event” and a $2,194 flight to Moultrie, Ga., for the Sunbelt Expo.

In some instances, Adams charged partial costs to his presidential travel budget. For example, Adams paid $113 from his travel budget for a $2,892 trip to Nashville for an SEC Presidents/Chancellors meeting in March 2008. He charged the remaining $2,779 to the Capital Campaign.

“Dr. Adams uses the plane for appointments related to the work of the institution, from academic affairs to research support and donor relations,” said Meg Amstutz, Adams’ chief of staff. “He would use it for any work in support of the institutional mission.”

In deciding whether or not to use the plane, she said, “Dr. Adams, or any official [using the plane], would look at any number of factors – the work that needs to be done in context of other appointments on [the] schedule, the cost of transportation, whether or not the plane is available, and weather.”

When asked how budget cuts played into that list of factors, Amstutz said, “We are very aware of the cost of the plane and we use it in a very appropriate manner to support work of the institution.”

So why spend $1,300 to fly to dinner in Macon instead of drive two hours?

“He would use the plane if it was needed to meet all the demands on his schedule,” Amstutz responded. “The president uses the plane in order to advance the work of the institution,” she repeated.

She would not answer to whether Adams had a direct conflict that forced him to use the plane that night.