Taxpayers footing the bill for hundreds of flights that KU defends as essential

photo by: Contributed photo

Kansas University's new Cessna Citation CJ4 business jet. The plane was delivered to KU Dec. 23, 2014, and replaces the university's Cessna Citation Bravo, which KU had been using 17 years.

In January 2014, former Kansas University head football coach Charlie Weis and his wife, Maura, flew to Belmar, N.J., to recruit players.

The cost to taxpayers for the round-trip flight? $19,682.61. That’s because the Weises flew on a jet owned by KU rather than taking a commercial flight.

Over five years, KU has spent $3.5 million flying coaches, administrators and others on some 641 trips, mostly on university-owned aircraft but occasionally on state-owned or charter planes. The trips were aimed at snagging top-notch professors, athletes, students and researchers, as well as attending sports and academic meetings, basketball and golf tournaments, funerals and donor events in Kansas and nationwide.

About two-thirds of the money paid for flights by KU coaches and athletic administrators.

Those numbers do not include about 643 trips at a cost of $1.6 million for the medical outreach and medical continuing education programs throughout the state. Nor do they include the flights university officials and staff take on commercial planes, or flights taken by student athletes on charter aircraft.

Kansas University Endowment Association has given millions of dollars in donor gifts to the university to purchase aircraft. But donors do not provide funds to operate the planes; taxpayers pick up the tab. The flights typically cost significantly more than similar flights on commercial aircraft.

The university has a Cessna Citation CJ4 jet purchased in December 2014 to replace an older jet. It also owns a 25 percent share in a Phenom 100 jet through Executive AirShare, a company that sells customers time on a plane used by multiple customers.

From the perspective of KU officials, the flights are a good investment. Commercial flights or car trips wouldn’t allow KU leaders to visit a hard-to-reach Western Kansas city and be back in Lawrence for an evening event, they say, or to work all day on campus, visit Washington, D.C., for an evening event and be back in town for work here the next day. Taxpayers are not well-served by having highly paid university officials waiting in line to check baggage or riding in a car down Interstate 70, they say.

For example, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little flew to and from Salina in April 2014 on the KU jet for a speaking engagement at a cost of $3,714. The drive would have taken two hours and 15 minutes each way.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

“It doesn’t make a lot of good sense to have the chancellor, whatever her hourly expense would be, driving down the turnpike for hours at a time,” said Tim Caboni, KU’s vice chancellor for public affairs, speaking about use of the jet in general, not about specific flights. “I would imagine some folks would see that as wasteful. Anything that we can do to deploy her time effectively is a good thing.”

Of the total trips reviewed:

• 215 trips at a cost of $709,955 were made by people associated with the chancellor’s activities, such as recruitment, the KU Honors program, public relations and visits to Washington, D.C.

• 288 trips at a cost of $2.4 million were made by those in KU Athletics, largely for recruitment but also for meetings and games.

• 37 trips at a cost of $127,865 were associated with the KU Endowment Association.

The Journal-World received, through a Kansas Open Records Act request, data on flights paid for with public money on KU or state aircraft, by KU officials from July 1, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2014.

The records show the university paying dramatically different amounts for flights on the same aircraft to the same cities.

For example, officials took 39 round-trip flights to Dallas over the five-year period. The cost for those 1,000-mile flights ranged from about $1,339 to $20,557, according to university records. The most expensive trip to Dallas was billed at 10.5 hours on a King Air C90B while the least expensive round-trip flight was billed at 2.9 hours on the state’s King Air 350, according to KU’s flight records.

KU officials would not answer questions about specific flights.

Trips by Weis illustrate the same issue.

In 2011 when university officials made the flight to Teterboro, N.J., as part of the Weis hire, it cost taxpayers $11,475.

In 2014, when Weis and his wife made the recruiting trip to Belmar, N.J., virtually the same distance as Teterboro, it cost roughly $19,682, or $8,207 more.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

Some of the flights were made to hard-to-reach destinations such as cities in Western Kansas, but many were made to cities with frequent commercial flights. Flights to Washington, D.C., generally cost from $9,450 to $13,500 on KU’s private planes, according to the data.

KU planes made 14 trips to Washington, D.C., over the five years for administrative purposes. Gray-Little made nine of those trips. The cost to taxpayers for Washington, D.C., flights was $142,877.

If the total of 40 Washington passengers had flown commercially on 14 same-day trips, the cost would have been about $16,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

photo by: Associated Press

In this file photo from Sept. 26, 2011, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, right, is seen as first lady Michelle Obama greets audience members after she spoke at an event about supporting and retaining women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, in the East Room at the White House in Washington.

For years, the university had kept its budgeted aviation operating expenses under $1 million a year. But in 2013 budgeted operating expenses jumped to $1.9 million from $924,000 in 2012. Asked why, Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a university spokeswoman, said in writing: “The budget changed because it was intended to more accurately represent actual expenses but was overstated.” She would not elaborate.

Mission and expectations

University officials including Caboni, Kansas University Endowment President Dale Seuferling and KU Associate Athletic Director Jim Marchiony talked in general about the importance of owning the planes, but refused to answer questions the Journal-World posed about some dozens of specific flights, saying each trip is well thought out.

“Looking at different trips is one way to look at that,” Caboni said. “The other is to think about how you can intellectualize that. And the chancellor’s time is incredibly valuable, not just because how much she is paid. More importantly, there is a very limited amount of her time.”

“Folks who lead this institution are essentially on call 24/7,” Caboni said. “They work long hours, and making sure we can pack ever more into those days is again a way in which we use that tool.”

Seuferling said judging the value of the planes’ use should be weighed against the importance of an expensive capital investment as opposed to asking questions about “cherry-picked” flights.

“One of the objectives of having the capital asset available is to use it whenever possible and when necessary,” Seuferling said. “To go the other way and mothball it multiple days of the week doesn’t make economic sense for the capital investment.”

“The people of Kansas aspire for the University of Kansas to be a national research university located in Lawrence, Kansas,” Seuferling said. “How does that institution meet that mission and the expectations? Travel is certainly one of the requirements in carrying that out.”

Caboni noted that the university is in the middle of a fundraising campaign, and the ability to fly easily is helpful.

“One thing we know, you don’t raise $1.2 billion by sitting in your office. You don’t ask for a million dollars over the telephone. You can’t do it via Skype. And there are donors who will only be solicited by and want to meet with the chancellor,” Caboni said. “Particularly if those folks are in Western Kansas or a place where there is not a commercial flight. Ensuring that we are able to put her in front of those individuals and tell the story of why we need their investment and get her back in time so she can do something else. It’s one of the reasons why we are so successful as an institution and in generating voluntary support.”

A good example of the jet’s use came, Caboni said, when Gray-Little was in Washington, D.C., meeting with potential donors. A group of eight campus officials, including a photographer and a vice chancellor, flew out at the end of the day to join her. “We did a day of work here on the campus, hopped on the plane and flew to D.C.,” Caboni said. “We had multiple folks from across (Washington D.C.) there to interact and engage with university leadership. Instead of spending the night, we got back on the plane and we were here at 11 o’clock that evening to go to work the next day.”

Seuferling said the endowment association had not considered donating money to KU to pay for the operation and maintenance of the jets.

“We’re not the primary users,” said Seuferling, who has taken 36 trips on KU jets over five years to visit donors around the country. “It’s a very difficult decision to make the capital investment. I would also argue the value the taxpayers get … the value provided to taxpayers is immense.”

The KU data reviewed does not include flights for KU’s sports teams. Those flights are either scheduled through a charter company or commercial airline or the teams take a bus to schools that university officials do not consider a long trip such as to Iowa State University, Marchiony said.

The Journal-World did not review the commercial flights that KU administrators, coaches and others take. Commercial flights play an important role because many times the university may have four or five officials flying any given day to different places, officials said. Last year, the university spent $2 million on commercial flights.

Caboni said he reviewed the number of flights he and the chancellor and two other vice chancellors took last year: Of 103 trips, 31 of the flights were on the KU jet, he said.

Is it justified?

Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow in the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said the issue of private planes and public money involves weighing benefit versus cost. The public isn’t usually aware of these types of expenses, and if you have a popular coach or chancellor, people are less prone to complain, he said.

The University of Minnesota doesn’t have a plane, but when it hired basketball coach Richard Pitino, his contract allowed him to fly charter rather than commercial, Kiedrowski said.

“It’s a very difficult topic,” said Kiedrowski, who was the executive vice president for Wells Fargo when it got into trouble with the federal government over its perks after the 2008 financial crash, and former budget director for Minneapolis. “The cost can never be justified. It falls into the area of a prestige/perk.”

Lawrence McQuillan, a senior fellow and director of entrepreneurial innovation at the Independent Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said he considered the amount the university was spending to fly its private planes to be excessive.

“This is the taxpayers’ and student dollars that are going to this, and that money needs to be spent wisely,” he said after the Journal-World provided him information about the total cost to use the planes and information about many specific flights. “They are paying excess costs that doesn’t advance the education mission for the University of Kansas at all.”

“Anyone with common sense would see it as imprudent and wasteful expenditures,” said McQuillan, who also has been a director at the Pacific Research Institute and research fellow at Hoover Institution, and often is a pundit on television news programs and nationally syndicated radio.

The Journal-World contacted 16 colleges, including the 10 Big 12 schools, the University of Missouri and the University of North Carolina. Only three schools — University of Texas System, Texas A&M and Iowa State University — said they own planes. Oklahoma State University owns a small share in a plane with Executive AirShare and sometimes uses a plane that belongs to its aviation program.

At Kansas State University, the president and administrators used to share a jet with the school’s aviation program, K-State spokeswoman Cindy Hollingsworth said. But the jet was facing major repairs, and K-State President Kirk Schulz decided to sell it.

“It was not cost effective to continue to own the jet,” Hollingsworth said. “Manhattan has an airport with commercial flights … with American Eagle, that is the way it is most cost effective for the (president) to do his travel.”

Kenny Lannou, K-State assistant athletics director for communications, said K-State athletics officials typically use commercial flights for meetings and recruiting. They use charter flights when appropriate for some recruiting trips, he said.

The University of Missouri president flies commercially, too, but sometimes rents a state-owned plane to fly to rural areas, said Christian Basi, MU spokesman.

“He does fly commercial, and he typically flies business class, which allows him a little bit more room and allows him to continue to work while he is on the plane,” Basi said.

The University of North Carolina does not have a plane, spokeswoman Helen Buchanan said.

“Raleigh-Durham Airport is only 25 minutes away, so most commercial flights are easy to get to,” she said.

Of five Texas colleges contacted by the Journal-World, only the University of Texas and Texas A&M had planes.

The University of Texas, one of the largest and richest college systems in the country, has one plane, which is not a jet but a twin-turbo nine-passenger King Air, said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, UT spokeswoman.

KU Athletics

About two-thirds of the money spent on KU-owned aircraft from mid-2009 to mid-2014 was spent flying KU Athletics officials.

“We use it in cases of efficiency,” Marchiony said. “There are times because of individual schedules it makes sense to use the school plane. We do it judiciously, and we don’t do it frivolously.”

Some examples:

• Head basketball coach Bill Self is the top KU flier. His 118 trips to recruit players and attend events and meetings cost $1.2 million over the period reviewed.

In 2013, Self was being honored along with two other college coaches for their contributions to cancer research by the V Foundation. The foundation was holding its banquet in Sarasota, Fla. Self flew with several KU executives to Sarasota for the event on Friday, May 17. The group returned to Lawrence that same night.

But on Saturday, Self returned to Sarasota for additional foundation activities and returned that night to Lawrence to attend Sunday’s KU graduation ceremony for his daughter and several of his players.

Total cost of the two Sarasota flights: $26,682.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

• Last March, when basketball star Joel Embiid, a KU freshman, began to experience back pain, he saw a doctor who diagnosed a stress fracture and prescribed bed rest, news stories said. His parents in Cameroon wanted a second opinion.

KU athletic officials agreed Embiid should see a specialist in Los Angeles. Embiid and basketball trainer Bill Cowgill took the KU jet to Los Angeles and received the same medical diagnosis: stress fracture. The round-trip flight cost $18,928.66. Embiid left KU last spring after his freshman year to play in the NBA.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

• Athletics and other officials often fly on KU’s planes to attend Big 12 meetings. The cost for 34 trips over five years was $202,664.

Examples include Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger, who flew last year to New Orleans for meetings for two days at a cost of $10,970, and Weis, who flew in with his wife from South Bend, Ind., to Dallas to attend the Big 12 Media Day at a cost of $11,835.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

In May 2010 former head football coach Turner Gill was listed as the only passenger traveling on the KU jet to the Phoenix Fiesta Bowl spring seminar. The cost was $19,950.

Former Athletic Director Lew Perkins and his assistants attended meetings of the National Football Hall of Fame and the Big 12 in New Jersey in 2009 at a cost of $17,000.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

A year later Perkins, a Massachusetts native, and his wife flew on the KU jet to Chicopee, Mass., on May 21, 2010, for four days for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame trustee meeting and awards ceremony. The cost was $13,515. Two days later basketball coach Bill Self and his assistant coach Joe Dooley flew on the KU King Air to Chicopee to join Perkins for two days for what records referred to as “public relations.” Self’s flight cost $12,976.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Dec. 8, 2011, Charlie Weis gets off the Kansas University plane at the Lawrence Airport after agreeing to become the 37th football coach in KU history.

Hiring Weis

Zenger fired Gill on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. The endowment association provided the money, about $70,000, for KU to hire Glenn Sugiyama, a Chicago executive search consultant, to help hire a new coach, Marchiony said.

Three days after Gill was fired, Sugiyama and Zenger flew to Chicago on the KU jet for $9,535 on a five-hour flight, according to university records.

On Dec. 8, Sugiyama, Zenger and two assistants flew round-trip to Teterboro, N.J. Weis also was listed on university records as a passenger. The cost of the flight was $11,475.

The next day, athletic officials, having returned to Lawrence, presented Weis as KU’s new coach in a press conference. On Sunday, the KU jet flew Glenn Sugiyama and P. Sugiyama to Chicago for $4,560, according to university records. The total cost of the plane trips to hire Weis was $25,570.

The day Zenger decided to fire Gill, Marchiony was attending an NCAA meeting in Indianapolis. Because Marchiony was needed in Lawrence to help with the media coverage, the KU jet picked him up and flew him back to campus at a cost of $4,940.

photo by: Journal-World illustration


The jets are often used for recruiting trips, often with multiple destinations. Nine recruiting flights cost more than $30,000 each. Seventeen trips cost $20,000 to $29,000 each. The most expensive recruiting trip cost $38,950 in 2012. Weis and his wife and two assistant coaches spent six days flying to Memphis, to several California cities, to Indianapolis and then home to Lawrence.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

Other travel

In November 2012, Chancellor Gray-Little got the opportunity to hire a new executive vice chancellor.

Gray-Little had three candidates: Norman Beauchamp, chairman of the radiology department at the University of Washington; Steve Nelson, dean of the School of Medicine at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center; and an internal candidate, Doug Girod, who had been with the KU Medical Center since 1994 and was serving as interim executive dean for the medical school.

In separate trips Beauchamp and Nelson were brought to KU for interviews. Because university officials would not respond to questions about specific flights, it’s unknown how the two men arrived at KU.

Once here, each candidate was flown from Lawrence to Kansas City and then to Wichita. They then flew from Wichita to Lawrence to Kansas City, according to university records. The total flight costs: $5,554.

Internal candidate Girod was flown to Wichita in the KU jet for a cost of $1,944, according to university records.

According to the records, Nelson then made a second trip on Dec. 14 to Kansas University. The university paid $7,816 to fly Nelson, his wife and one of his children on a charter plane from New Orleans to Kansas City.

In February 2013 the chancellor announced Girod would get the job.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

• Gray-Little and Seuferling have made several trips together to raise money for the endowment association, records show. For example, in 2010 they flew to an outreach event in San Jose, Calif., for $15,163. In 2012, they flew to Newark, N.J., to raise money and to speak, at a cost of $15,469.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

• University officials and coaches often fly in-state to Pittsburg, Wichita and Salina for meetings, donor and student recruitment, golf tournaments and once to welcome the new dean of KU’s Wichita School of Medicine. Flights to and from those cities ranged from $500 to $3,700.

photo by: Journal-World illustration

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Four-part coverage of KU plane ownership and usage