Democrats question Benson’s expenses

CONCORD – State taxpayers paid $36,000 in September to obtain the 2003 sports utility vehicle that a state trooper uses to drive Gov. Craig Benson, according to documents released Friday in response to a Right-to-Know Law request filed by the state Democratic Party.

That’s $13,000 more than the state pays for the standard Ford Crown Victoria a state trooper uses on patrol, which was the car that typically brought former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to and from her home in Madbury.

But Shaheen, a Democrat, had three troopers and four vehicles assigned to her detail when she left office last January, including a 1994 Chevrolet Suburban.

Benson, a Republican, has only one vehicle and state police driver at his disposal.

“When you look at what this governor has spent for security and what others have in the past, it’s pretty minimal,’’ said Safety Commissioner Dick Flynn.

State government has used a four-wheel-drive car to transport the last four governors since the early 1990s, Flynn said.

“You really need to have that option so the governor can travel during rough, winter weather or get around in rural areas with muddy roads,’’ Flynn explained.

Benson, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall, requested a larger car to accommodate his long legs.Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan made a Right-to-Know Law request for information about the 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe bought to escort Benson and the number of trips he had taken on a state police helicopter.

Flynn said Benson has taken three helicopter trips, all from Concord:

n To Franconia on May 3, the day the Old Man of the Mountain fell.

n To Dixville Notch on June 10 to speak at the annual meeting of local police chiefs.

n To the Lancaster State Fair on Aug. 31 for Governors Day.

The taxpayer cost for that travel was $2,160.

“At a time when he is cutting health-care services, cutting state education aid to local communities, he has taxpayers getting him an SUV for nearly $40,000. It just shows that his priorities are wrong,’’ said Democratic Party communications director Pamela Walsh.

“As for using a helicopter, what’s wrong with driving to the North Country?’’

Shaheen used the helicopter to inspect damage during a devastating ice storm in the winter of 1998, said Walsh, who served as her press secretary.

During her last term in office, Shaheen took part in a Seacoast demonstration aboard one of the Black Hawk helicopters that the New Hampshire Air National Guard owns.

Benson press secretary Wendell Packard said Benson has been sensitive to spending taxpayer money during a tight budget crunch, which is why he paid out of pocket for his plane ticket Monday to lobby federal officials in Washington.

Benson’s personal net worth is in excess of $400 million. He has refused to accept his $103,000 salary and instead donated it to a fund to reward state employees for coming up with budget-saving ideas.

Republican State Chairwoman Jayne Millerick called Sullivan’s Right-to-Know Law request an “outrageous waste of taxpayer-paid time.’’

“It’s no surprise to them there is nothing to this security issue. The staff of the Democratic State Party worked for Governor Shaheen. They know how this works. It’s sad they would devote such effort to what proved to be an outrageous waste of taxpayer-paid time,’’ Millerick said.

The GOP chairwoman earlier this week launched her own request on how much money was spent on cars and state trooper time to protect Shaheen.

“These are political allegations they are making, which are unfounded, but if they are going to engage in them, we have no choice but to do the same,’’ she said.

State police bought the Tahoe without a competitive bid at Banks Chevrolet in Concord. They got a 23 percent discount from the sticker price of $46,582.

That’s similar to the 26 percent discount the state got when it bought the Chevrolet Suburban in 1994 from the same dealership. That vehicle was available to both former Govs. Steve Merrill and Shaheen.

The white-colored SUV came equipped with a “rear-seat entertainment’’ option worth $1,259 and a “performance’’ package worth $4,830.

“This car was bought as is right off the lot. That’s how we were able to get the discount and make the purchase as quickly as we did,’’ said State police Maj. Frederick Booth.

“Banks has for years offered the most competitive price for these kind of vehicles to us.’’