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Monday, November 24, 2014

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Bridge traffic too much for Chris Christie, takes state helicopter instead

Updated 10:55 pm, Thursday, July 24, 2014

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  • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie enters an SUV after meeting with and stumping for Connecticut Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, center with wife Leslie Foley, at Glory Days Diner in Greenwich, Conn., before going to a private fundraiser in Belle Haven on Monday, July 21, 2014. Governor Christie is under fire by some for using a New Jersey State Police helicopter to attend a political and fundraising trip to Connecticut earlier this week. The bill for the trip, reckoned to be $10,000 by a person with direct knowledge of Christie's transportation expenses, will be picked up by the Christie-headed Republican Governors Association and the Connecticut GOP. Photo: Jason Rearick / Stamford Advocate
    New Jersey Governor Chris Christie enters an SUV after meeting with and stumping for Connecticut Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, center with wife Leslie Foley, at Glory Days Diner in Greenwich, Conn., before going to a private fundraiser in Belle Haven on Monday, July 21, 2014. Governor Christie is under fire by some for using a New Jersey State Police helicopter to attend a political and fundraising trip to Connecticut earlier this week. The bill for the trip, reckoned to be $10,000 by a person with direct knowledge of Christie's transportation expenses, will be picked up by the Christie-headed Republican Governors Association and the Connecticut GOP. Photo: Jason Rearick

 

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took the "upper level" -- helicoptering over the George Washington Bridge -- to beat rush hour traffic from his home state to a recent GOP fundraiser with Connecticut gubernatorial contender Tom Foley.

Christie on Monday bypassed the Hudson River crossing made infamous by "Bridgegate," taking the short hop aboard a New Jersey State Police helicopter to Westchester County Airport en route to neighboring Greenwich for an evening of political appearances, Hearst Connecticut Media has learned.

Christie's security detail met the prospective 2016 White House hopeful at the suburban airport in Rye Brook, N.Y., which is a short drive from Greenwich, multiple law enforcement sources told Hearst.

The bill for the trip, reckoned to be $10,000 by a person with direct knowledge of Christie's transportation expenses, will be picked up by the Christie-headed Republican Governors Association and the Connecticut GOP.

Democrats quickly admonished Christie for using the taxpayer-owned AW139 helicopter for political business. The high-flying governor has encountered turbulence before for borrowing the chopper for unofficial business, including flying to his son's baseball game in 2011.

"The people of the state of New Jersey did not endow the governor's office with a helicopter so the governor can fly to political events in Connecticut," Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the deputy speaker of the New Jersey House, told Hearst.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak dismissed the criticism as being politically motivated.

"Democrats taking issue? Consider the source," Drewniak said. "With full reimbursement by third-parties, New Jersey governors are allowed to make use of the helicopter in such instances. Following former governor Jon Corzine's near fatal crash in a State Police SUV, the Democratically controlled legislature formally encouraged greater use of air travel by the chief executive as a safety measure."

The hourly cost of operating an AW139 runs about $2,500.

Wisniewski, a former chairman of the New Jersey Democratic Party, said there is a level of hypocrisy to Christie skipping the gridlock and tolls.

"I think the governor knows first hand the perils of traveling across the George Washington Bridge after his administration shut down access lanes," Wisniewski said. "Most ordinary folks in this area don't have the privilege of flying to avoid the George Washington Bridge."

Christie traveled to Connecticut in his capacity as chairman of the RGA, which he said during a diner stop with Foley Monday will do whatever it takes moneywise in the midterm elections to defeat Christie's Nutmeg State nemesis, Democrat Dannel P. Malloy.

"Yes, the RGA is covering full cost of that," Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA, told Hearst Thursday. "That is standard practice and we are well on record that we reimburse any transportation like that."

A newspaper probe into details of Christie's trip ran into a wall of silence at the county-run airport, with the ground crew that provided flight support and with New Jersey State Police, which said it could not disclose the governor's method of travel for security reasons.

The airport's brass report to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who has been chasing the RGA for its support of his longshot gubernatorial challenge of Democrat Andrew Cuomo, but to no avail. A request for comment was left with Astorino's campaign.

Todd Dolphin, general manager of Signature Flight Support, which has facilities on both sides of the airfield, said he couldn't share passenger information with the newspaper.

Christie left Trenton -- a 100-mile drive from Greenwich -- at 3 p.m. and was due in Connecticut at 5:30 p.m., according to his office.

A flight tracking database showed no record of the aircraft's arrival, which aviation experts say is not unusual because helicopters often fly under visual flight rules instead of filing an instrument flight plan.

The air traffic control tower log was not immediately available from the Federal Aviation Administration, which said it needed a tail number of the helicopter and a formal public records request before it could release information on any flight.

Christie's reliance on the state-owned helicopters spiked in 2013, with a public report putting the number of flights at 106.

In 2011, Christie caught significant flak from Democrats in the Garden State after taking a state helicopter from Trenton to Montvale, where his son was playing in a high school baseball game. The distance is 77 miles.

Christie's defenders pointed out that the New Jersey Republican showed up nearly two hours late to a 2010 campaign event in Greenwich -- the first time Foley ran for governor -- because of heavy traffic. With some donors paying up to $10,000 to attend Monday's VIP reception with Christie, they said, such a delay would have been disastrous.

On Monday, Christie accompanied Foley to a trio of campaign events in the hometown of the Republican frontrunner for governor, starting with a public appearance at a diner and ending with a pair of big-ticket fundraisers for the RGA and the state Republican Party.

Connecticut GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. confirmed the state party was splitting the costs of the trip, but declined further comment.

Foley, a former diplomat and private equity manager, lost by fewer than 6,500 votes to Maloy in 2010.

Since then, the animosity between Christie and Malloy has increased, with the two governors diverging over taxes, pension obligations, the minimum wage and gun-control legislation.

"He should have been the governor already," Christie said of Foley, who will face state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, of Fairfield, in the GOP's Aug. 12 primary.

The Connecticut Democrats questioned Foley's choice of Christie as a booster.

"Think about all the negative press the Christie visit has brought the Foley campaign, from massive protests for a veto of common sense gun legislation, to using a state helicopter to get here," said Devon Puglia, a state party spokesman. "Mr. Foley might want to re-think bringing him back."

A request for comment was not returned from Foley's campaign. Foley and Malloy are in a dead heat.

Hours ahead of the visit by Christie, who ascended to the chairmanship of the RGA for the midterm election cycle, Malloy launched a pre-emptive strike.

"For him to be the poster child for Republican governors is a scary thought about the future of the country," Malloy told Hearst following a bill-signing ceremony Monday at Weston High School.

Malloy sneered at Christie's White House chances.

"If anyone examines this guy's record, the only thing he'll be run is out of town," Malloy said. "Here's a guy who has suffered six downgrades. All three ratings agencies have downgraded their bonds this year again. This is a guy who has refused to properly fund the pensions, $2 billion in the last 30 days that he's refused to fund. He's driving his state into bankruptcy, in essence, over time."

From the presidential proving grounds of Iowa to Aspen, Colo., and from the Jersey Shore to Greenwich, Christie has been omnipresent in recent weeks, relying on private jets and helicopters to carry out his duties as RGA chairman, White House prospect and governor. The Connecticut GOP was expected to net more than six figures from Monday's audience with Christie.

Christie said during the diner stop Monday that while he likes Malloy personally, the first-term Democrat has failed to deliver.

"Listen, I know (he) is thrilled that I'm here today and I know he'll be thrilled when I come here again, and again, and again, to do the best I can to make sure Connecticut has a governor that will bring growth to the state and jobs in its economy," Christie said. "He tends to say a lot of inflammatory things about me, and I'm just not going to return fire."

neil.vigdor@scni.com; 203-625-4436; http://twitter.com/gettinviggy