Kentucky's Republican governor has run into turbulence over his use of taxpayer-owned aircraft, creating another distraction for a reelection campaign already dogged by feuds with teachers, struggles over state pensions and a legal fight with his lieutenant governor.
Gov. Matt Bevin tried to defuse the air travel controversy late Thursday by having his office release a log disclosing the purposes of his official trips on state-owned aircraft. Bevin's office said the disclosure goes beyond what Kentucky law requires. But the state Democratic party called it a stunt, because it doesn't address his use of state aircraft for political and personal trips.
Reflecting his pugnacious style, Bevin's office also criticized media coverage of the matter.
But the controversy has put Bevin on the defensive, especially when he told a Kentucky newspaper that his flights were none of taxpayers' business if they weren't for state business.
"The fact that he responded with this log shows that they're feeling the heat," longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross said Friday.
Bevin has worked to make himself a national player in conservative Republican circles, and he's in a tough reelection fight against Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of Steve Beshear, a popular former two-term governor who preceded Bevin in office.
In recent days, Bevin's handling of the aircraft issue has been criticized by a conservative talk radio host, lampooned by a cartoonist and ridiculed by Democrats.
The log shows the purposes for more than 140 flights Bevin has taken as governor. The reasons include business recruitment, policy conferences, community forums and meetings with White House officials. Bevin's office called it an "unprecedented move to further transparency."
"Since the start of our administration, we have been 100% committed to financial integrity and to ensuring that we are good stewards of taxpayer resources," Bevin said in a statement.
Bevin's critics said the list failed to document trips taken on state aircraft by the governor for political purposes and other reasons unrelated to his duties as governor. Kentucky Democratic Party spokeswoman Marisa McNee called the log's release a stunt.
"The governor needs to stop hiding the ball and show Kentuckians the respect they deserve," she said in a statement. "This is our plane and we deserve straight-forward answers about where he is flying it and why, including all personal and political travel."
Looking to capitalize on the controversy, Andy Beshear said Friday that if elected he'll disclose the purpose and funding for every trip he takes on state aircraft, telling Kentuckians: "It is your property and your business to know how your governor uses it."
Bevin's office said Thursday that his use of state-owned aircraft has fully complied with state law, including reimbursements for unofficial trips. Past governors also used state-owned aircraft for personal or political purposes, with the same reimbursement requirement.
The Lexington Herald-Leader noted that in 2011, Steve Beshear refused to disclose why he took certain trips on the state plane that were reimbursed by the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, Bevin used a state-owned plane to fly to Wisconsin, Chicago and Miami in July and August for reasons that haven't been disclosed, the Courier Journal reported, citing state police flight logs and other public records. Bevin's list also doesn't include the purpose and location of more than 10 trips taken from late February through April, including flights to Washington, D.C., Lynchburg, Va., St. Simons Island in Georgia and Indianapolis, plus seven different political campaign events throughout Kentucky, the Louisville newspaper reported.
Bevin has said that he has either paid himself or had outside organizations pick up the tab when he used state-owned aircraft for personal reasons.
"The information is out there," Bevin told the Bowling Green Daily News. "The people can see all of the flights that have been taken and can see where the money came from."
But the governor inflamed the issue when he added: "The real question is: Why does it matter what the purpose (of the trip) is? Did taxpayers pay for it? If they did, then they should know the purpose. If they didn't pay for it, it's none of their business."
Those comments reinforced Bevin's reputation for picking fights, which has loomed over his campaign.
"He seems to with great regularity remind people of that" image," Cross said Friday. "He keeps digging himself a hole."
Bevin has feuded with teachers who opposed his efforts to revamp public pension systems and allow charter schools in Kentucky. He criticized teachers who used their sick days to rally at Kentucky's Capitol, forcing some school districts to cancel classes. In 2018, he asserted without evidence that a child who had been left home alone was sexually assaulted on a day of mass school closings as Kentucky teachers rallied. He apologized, but then doubled down earlier this year, connecting a young girl's shooting in Louisville with school closings caused by more teacher protests.
Bevin was sued this summer by his lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, over the dismissal of her top two aides without her consent. Bevin dropped Hampton from his ticket early this year.
In seeking a second term, Bevin has played up his ties to President Donald Trump, who remains popular in Kentucky, as well as the state's job growth and his opposition to abortion. He has the advantage of running in a state that has trended heavily toward the GOP in recent years.
The Kentucky governor's race is being watched closely for any signs of vulnerability among Republican incumbents aligned with Trump heading into the 2020 elections.