- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Gov. Susana Martinez didn’t break the law when she took a ride on a State Police helicopter to avoid missing a commercial flight to attend political fundraisers in Texas in 2011, a top official in the New Mexico attorney general’s office has concluded.

However, general counsel David Pederson says it would seem “highly appropriate” for Martinez, her campaign or the Republican Governors Association to reimburse the state the $800 that the flight cost taxpayers because it was “a convenience afforded her that would not be available to the average citizen or public official, even if no law was broken.”

Martinez, who criticized her Democratic predecessor’s use of government aircraft and called a state jet the “ultimate symbol of waste and excess,” said she has no intention of paying back the expense. Her office has said the helicopter flight was proper because Martinez stayed at a Board of Finance meeting that ran late, so State Police used the helicopter to get her to the Albuquerque airport on time for a flight to an RGA meeting in Houston.

Pederson said it “appears that a colorable reason for use of state transportation has been made by the governor.”

He concluded that while the helicopter did provide a personal or political benefit for Martinez, there was a “plausible official purpose” for using it.

A liberal advocacy group, ProgressNow New Mexico, had asked Democratic Attorney General Gary King, who is running for governor next year against Martinez, to determine whether she violated state ethics laws.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell called the request “one more baseless attack from a discredited left-wing special interest group.

“Even the Attorney General didn’t find anything improper here,” Knell said.

He said that the State Police helicopter was used so Martinez could attend a state meeting that lasted more than six hours.

“As always, taxpayer funds were not used to pay for her political travel,” Knell said.

When she ran for governor in 2010, Martinez criticized Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration for purchasing a $5.5 million twin-engine business jet and aired ads against her opponent, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, for use of state aircraft - what her campaign called “the perks of power at the expense of taxpayers.”

“Candidate Susana Martinez would have loudly and proudly railed against a public official diverting law enforcement officers and equipment to help an elected official make a political fundraiser,” ProgressNow Executive Director Pat Davis said in a statement. “It’s time Gov. Martinez put actions to words and give taxpayers the refund we are due.”

Knell pointed out that Martinez has sold five of the state’s airplanes and has used the state aircraft “10 times less than the previous administration.”

The helicopter flight to Albuquerque was one of three times Martinez has used the $6.7 million State Police chopper, the Albuquerque Journal reported in October. She flew on it to attend wildfire briefings in June 2011 and to travel to a welcome-home ceremony for National Guard troops in Las Cruces in December 2012.