Gov. Tate Reeves, in his first term as governor, used at least $31,000 in taxpayer funds to take trips on Mississippi’s state airplane to political events that don’t appear to directly involve state business, according to a review of flight records and the governor’s social media posts.
The trips in question range from taking the plane to attend partisan gatherings hosted by groups that have donated more than $1 million to Reeves’ campaigns to overlapping state business with campaign fundraising efforts.
The state’s Office of Air Transport Services allows the governor, other statewide officials and agency leaders to use the airplane for official state business. The purpose of the state aircraft is for a state employee to conduct business on behalf of Mississippi or to benefit the state, according to a policy listed on the Department of Finance and Administration’s website.
While that loosely worded policy does not define official business or include examples of what type of travel is prohibited, the use of the state plane has long been scrutinized by elected officials and the press.
Before he was elected governor, Reeves was among those who raised questions about expensive taxpayer-funded trips. In a 2013 hearing, when Reeves was lieutenant governor and chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, he highlighted questionable state plane trips to publicly question a policy at the time that gave state agency heads more flexibility in how tax dollars were spent.
“What we are now trying to determine is, has that flexibility been good for the taxpayers or has it been not so good for the taxpayers?” Reeves said at the time.
Since he was elected governor, however, Reeves used the plane for trips that could fall under similar scrutiny. As governor, not only does he have first dibs for plane usage, but he also leads the agency, DFA, that manages the use of the state aircraft.
Mississippi Today analyzed thousands of pages of flight records, obtained through a public records request, that span from January 2020, when Reeves took office as governor, through June 2023.
Several trips, most of which have not previously been reported, raise questions about how the governor has used the taxpayer-owned plane, the rules surrounding the usage of the plane, and whether the governor used the aircraft for political purposes.
Communications officials at DFA did not respond to specific questions from Mississippi Today on whether the agency has an independent process to review if the governor is using the aircraft for official business.
Corey Custer, deputy chief of staff to Reeves, defended the trips in a Wednesday statement to Mississippi Today, saying they were “absolutely appropriate uses of the governor’s time and resources.”
“These (trips) are important to advancing the interests of our state and implementing a conservative agenda that has helped make Mississippi stronger than ever before,” Custer said. “Mississippians want somebody who will fight to defend their way of life and advance principled policy ideas, and that’s what Governor Reeves will continue to do.”
Reeves flies to CPAC
In August 2022, Reeves used the state plane to travel to the Conservative Political Action Conference, an openly partisan organization that lobbies for conservative causes.
Pilots flew the plane without any passengers from Jackson to Hattiesburg on Aug. 4, 2022, where they picked up Reeves, one of his daughters and Custer, the governor’s communications staffer. The three ate catered food aboard the aircraft and traveled from Hattiesburg to Dallas for the CPAC conference. They stayed in Dallas overnight and returned to Jackson the next day at a cost of $4,554 in taxpayer funds.
At the conference, the governor blistered Democrats, who had control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, for how they handled the nation’s economy.
“Inflation is at a 40-year high, and everybody’s paying more,” Reeves said at the event.
But before Reeves decried liberals making average citizens pay more for goods and services, he had used taxpayer dollars to attend at least three partisan events within the previous few months.
Flights to Republican Governors Association events
The governor appears to have used the plane three separate times on May 25, 2021; Aug. 10, 2021; and May 23, 2022; to attend Republican Governors Association events around the country, costing taxpayers a total of $13,245.
His August 2021 trip occurred when hospitals around the state were struggling with an influx of COVID-19 cases. Lee McCall, a Neshoba County hospital administrator, publicly pleaded for the governor’s help to deal with the surge in cases.
“Hospitals and healthcare workers need you to help us,” McCall wrote about Reeves. “Where are you?”
Reeves’ office told the Clarion Ledger at the time that he flew to Chicago on a commercial flight, and prior to the conference, he was out of the state for a personal trip with his family.
While he may have used a commercial flight to travel to Chicago, the location of the RGA conference, taxpayers still paid $5,692 for the aircraft to travel from Jackson to Chicago to pick up Reeves and his family from the conference before returning them back to the state.
Unlike the bipartisan National Governors Association where policy is often discussed, the main description leading the homepage of the RGA’s website says, “The RGA helps elect Republican governorships throughout the nation.”
The RGA has also been one of Reeves’ biggest contributors. The organization dumped over $1.8 million into his 2019 campaign for governor, and it is widely expected to write more large checks to his campaign during the current election cycle.
Reeves did not promote the May 2021 and May 2022 RGA conferences on any of his social media accounts, and there do not appear to be any records available to independently confirm if the RGA events were the sole reason for the governor’s trip.
However, the RGA notes in a press release on its website that several governors were speaking to a radio host on May 27, 2021, as part of its “spring policy conference” in Nashville, the same time that Reeves was also there.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also noted on his 2022 public schedule he was attending an RGA conference on May 24 through May 26, confirming that there was an RGA conference when Reeves used the state plane to travel there.
Reeves flies to national anti-abortion group events
Reeves used the airplane on the public’s dime on Feb. 14, 2022, and Oct. 4, 2022, to attend events for the Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit organization that combines “politics with policy” by working to advance pro-life laws through “direct lobbying and grassroots campaigns.”
Custer accompanied the governor on the Valentine’s Day trip to Charleston, South Carolina, which cost taxpayers $4,807. The plane records list a “speaking engagement” as the reason for the flight.
The governor promoted his appearance at the February event on social media, saying it was great “meeting and praying with so many of our allies at the Susan B. Anthony List Pro-Life Leaders Summit.”
“Together, we’re going to save millions of babies and ensure expecting mothers receive the quality care that they deserve,” Reeves wrote.
The governor’s campaign that same weekend also recorded spending $305 of his own donations on “travel expenses” to pay for a hotel room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the location of the SBA conference. But the hotel later refunded the room to the campaign, according to his campaign’s filings with the Secretary of State’s office.
It’s unclear why his campaign, at least initially, paid for a hotel room at the conference or why the hotel refunded the payment. Reeves’ office did not address questions seeking to clarify the use of campaign funds.
The governor also used the plane on Oct. 4, 2022, to travel to another SBA List event in Dallas for a “speaking engagement,” which cost taxpayers $3,415. The governor, again, touted the trip on social media.
Reeves flies to Florida for Fox News town hall
On April 29, 2021, Reeves chartered the state plane to travel to Orlando, Florida, where he participated in a “Red State Trailblazers Town Hall” with Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
A Reeves aide accompanied the governor on the Orlando trip for a cost of $5,060, where catered food was also provided to the two.
Reeves joined Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts for the town hall with Ingraham to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and other political issues.
During one portion of the interview, Ingraham played a clip of President Joe Biden’s 2021 State of the Union speech, where he called on Congress to address systemic racism in the country. The Fox News host asked Reeves to respond.
Reeves said he did not believe systemic racism exists in America. As evidence, he touted that while the nation was dealing with a wave of protests over police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, Mississippi experienced no violent protests. He attributed this to Mississippians’ pro-law enforcement sentiments.
“We’re not trying to defund the police like the far left, we’re actually investing in our police because we know we’re indebted to them for keeping our communities safe,” Reeves said.
It’s common for public officials, including the governor, to give interviews to news outlets. But during his governorship, Reeves has commonly granted interviews to national news outlets like NBC, CNN, CBS and ABC via Zoom.
In-state plane trips paired with campaign fundraisers
The first-term governor also appears to have used the state plane at least 10 times to mix fundraising events with official state business, according to a review of social media posts, plane records and campaign finance reports.
While not explicitly prohibited in DFA policy, the governor’s travel habits reveal how closely his official duties have been linked with political fundraising.
For example, Reeves’ office on Oct. 5, 2022, requested to use the plane on Oct. 12-13 of that year for a “speaking engagement” on the Coast.
The governor, accompanied by a staffer, departed Jackson at 1:45 p.m. on Oct. 12 and arrived in Kiln at 2:35 p.m. The governor on Facebook wrote that he participated in a ribbon cutting for the RESTORE Dock in Hancock County.
While the ribbon cutting was official state business, his campaign account that day reported raking in around 24 donations from people who live in Gulf Coast towns, totaling $21,000 in contributions that day alone.
Reeves and the staffer departed Kiln and returned to Jackson the next morning on Oct. 13. The total trip cost taxpayers $1,391.
Another instance where the governor might have overlapped fundraising events with official state business happened on May 16, 2022, when pilots traveled to Olive Branch in DeSoto County to bring Reeves back to Jackson.
The governor wrote on Facebook that he was touring the Ardagh Metal Packaging plant in Olive Branch, but his campaign finance reports show that around 34 people in north Mississippi donated around $37,500 to his campaign that same day.
Flight records show Reeves’ office on May 2 requested to use the flight to travel to north Mississippi for “speaking engagements.” The plane left Jackson without any passengers at 5 p.m. and returned to Jackson with the governor and an aide at 7:30 p.m., at a cost of $1,771.
Mississippi Today found at least eight other instances where the governor might have used the plane to travel to places for state business, and fresh campaign donations were recorded near those same places on those same dates.