Reversing course, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reimbursed the state for personal and political travel on a state police helicopter, including a trip to meet with Republicans urging him to consider a presidential run.
Christie, a Republican, personally paid the state treasury $2,151.50 for his use of the chopper on two occasions in the last week to attend his son's games in a state baseball tournament.
"Though the superintendent of the State Police noted yesterday the travel does not cost taxpayers additional dollars, the governor understands the sensitivity about this kind of thing and believes he owes it to the public to ensure that this is not a distraction," Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak said.
His office also provided documentation of 33 times Christie has flown on the state helicopter since taking office in January 2010. Almost all were for official purposes; the final two were listed as family events.
Separately, the New Jersey Republican Party paid the treasury $1,232.29 to cover his travel from the game Tuesday to the governor's mansion for a meeting with Iowa GOP donors who want to draft him into the White House campaign.
Christie had initially balked at calls from Democrats to repay the state for personal use of the aircraft. His office said his use of air travel had been "extremely limited and appropriate."
Speaking to reporters Thursday, the governor maintained that the air travel did not cost taxpayers any additional funds because state police are required to log a set number of hours each week to maintain their certification.
In his famously combative style, he also defended his travel to see his son's games, saying, "I'm governor 24-7, every single day. But I'm also a father." He also chided the media and "hacks" in the Democratic Party for unnecessarily kicking up dust.
"If me writing a check ... to pay for these two helicopter rides will allow us to focus on the really important issues to the people of the state of New Jersey, than I'm willing to do it," he said.
Given the still-dire condition of the state's finances and Christie's battles with public employee unions, Democrats have called Christie a hypocrite.
"Perhaps his presidential courters can help him foot the bill so our taxpayers aren't on the hook for such perks when he is calling for sacrifice," Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle told the Newark Star-Ledger.
One Democratic assemblywoman also planned to call for a hearing into whether Christie's use of the state police helicopter kept law enforcement from handling emergencies.
Just as the Secret Service trails the president at all times, New Jersey's governors are constantly protected by a state police detail. During the 1993 governor race, Republican Christie Todd Whitman pledged to sell the state helicopter, promising to travel the state solely by road. She did not after winning, however. Her successor, Democrat Jim McGreevey, had the state Democratic Party reimburse the state for personal use of the chopper during his brief term. Jon Corzine, who Christie defeated in 2009, personally paid for use of helicopters to travel the state.
At his news conference, Christie referred to an accident involving Corzine when his SUV crashed while speeding along the New Jersey Turnpike to attend a meeting between radio personality Don Imus and the Rutgers University women's basketball team. The state police encourage him to travel by air more often than he does, he said.
"I don't use it to joyride around New Jersey," he said. "I'm not going to go 95 miles an hour on the highway and put myself and the [state police] at risk."
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