Governor’s Sunday helicopter travels have come at taxpayers’ expense.
By MICHELLE MILLHOLLON - Published: Aug 30, 2009
On Father’s Day this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal settled into a state helicopter with two staff members and flew to church services in Springhill.
A week later, state records show, he was in Dry Creek, again to attend church. The weekend after that it was a church in Monroe.
The Advocate reviewed Jindal’s travel by gathering helicopter records from State Police through a public information request and verifying the purpose of the trips with the Governor’s Office. The helicopter records provided by State Police covered March 2 to July 20.
In May, June and July, there was rarely a Sunday when the governor didn’t board a taxpayer-funded helicopter to attend church services in far-flung parts of the state. He traveled by helicopter to churches less frequently in March and April.
Over five months, Jindal took more than three dozen helicopter trips. Fourteen were to attend church services, according to state records.
He worshipped in Hornbeck, Many, Logansport, Angie, Elizabeth, Harrisonburg, Columbia, Winnsboro, Coushatta, Robeline and Anacoco.
At least two aides usually accompanied him along with his security detail and State Police pilots. The public pays their salaries as well as the fuel and upkeep for the helicopter.
The helicopter that the governor uses the most costs $1,200 an hour to operate — about $45,000 for five months of church visits.
Jindal has continued to visit churches since the time covered in the records from State Police, including a trip to Rayville in Richland Parish last week.
The Governor’s Office refuses to disclose to the media ahead of time where Jindal will attend services. But a video posted on the Internet last year gives a glimpse into the Catholic governor’s visits to Protestant churches in North Louisiana.
In the video, Jindal addresses a congregation identified as New Chapel Hill Baptist Church on a stage decorated to look like a beach with a surfboard and Adirondackstyle chairs. The governor opens with a few quips from the campaign trail, including a riff about popular culture and Paris Hilton. He relates a story about military heroes before talking about his conversion to Christianity.
Jindal said it was a video about Christ’s death that spoke to him.
“It just hit me. How arrogant to do anything but to get on my knees and worship him. It was as simple as that,” he said.
Jindal said Thursday that he does not seek out congregations to address. He said he visits a church when he receives an invitation. He acknowledged his office sometimes reaches out to a church’s leadership but only when a member of the congregation asks him to visit.
He said the visits give him a chance to talk to citizens.
“I’m completely just humbled and honored that I’m asked to come and worship with Louisianians across the state,” he said. “It’s important for the governor to get out of Baton Rouge.”
He said that at home in Baton Rouge he goes to Mass when possible, refusing to quantify how often. Jindal said he makes a point of attending Catholic services on holy days of obligation.
“I go as frequently as I can,” Jindal said.
Even though he travels on Sundays, Jindal said he schedules meetings with local officials when he flies to church services.
On July 5, for example, his office reported that the governor met with citizens, attended a meeting with local officials and went to church in Monroe. Jindal was back in Monroe four days later to meet with community leaders as part of his “Louisiana Working Tour.”
State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, questions the necessity of Sunday meetings with officials.
Adley, a lay minister and a frequent critic of the Jindal administration, said he does not call police jurors and ask them to meet him after church so he can seek reimbursement for his expenses.
“I’m glad he goes to church, but I don’t think we ought to be paying his way there,” Adley said.
Jindal said he made a commitment when he became governor that he would meet with elected officials. He said he is fulfilling that commitment.
He said he is respectful of the fact that he is taking the officials away from their families on a Sunday. But he insisted they seem eager to show him schools, roads, factories and other projects in their areas.
State Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, said Jindal is the most accessible governor in modern history. He said taxpayers must decide whether the trips are worth their expense.
“He’s reaching out to people who have never had the opportunity to see a governor in person since the electronic age came on,” McPherson said.
McPherson said the trips are beneficial to Jindal’s grass-roots style of politics and to his pledge that he wants to hear what the people have to say.
In the 2003 gubernatorial runoff against Jindal, Kathleen Blanco carried all but three of the parishes in heavily Protestant North Louisiana. Jindal followed up his loss by worshipping with congregations in north Louisiana in the years before the next election.
Four years later, Jindal led the returns from north Louisiana, even with a Bossier Parish resident running against him. The votes were so strong that Jindal won the primary outright, almost unheard of for a nonincumbent candidate. The governor carried all but four parishes — Bienville, Orleans, Red River and St. Bernard.
Political commentator and former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown said Jindal is playing good politics by continuing to concentrate on churches in north Louisiana.
“You don’t see the governor very much in New Orleans. He tends to shy away from New Orleans,” Brown said. “But North Louisiana is hard core and he wants to keep it that way.”
The Rev. Gil Arthur of East Leesville Baptist Church, where Jindal has spoken, said the governor’s Indian heritage makes people uncertain about what he stands for and who he is.
Jindal’s parents immigrated to the United States from India shortly before his birth.
Arthur said Jindal wants people to know that he is a man of Christ.
Leesville is in Vernon Parish west of Alexandria.
“He is a dynamic Christian man. I love him personally. He is a friend although we’re not in contact hardly ever,” Arthur said.
Jindal converted to Catholicism as a teenager. He has been open about his parents’ disappointment about his shift from Hinduism.
During the most recent governor’s election, the state Democratic Party aired a commercial that depicted Jindal as doubting the morals and questioning the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and Pentecostals. The commercial ran in North Louisiana.
Jindal spoke at North Monroe Baptist Church in Ouachita Parish in July.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Dye, said Jindal’s Fourth of July weekend visit helped his congregation see that a practicing Catholic can be an outspoken evangelical.
State Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, sat with congregations for several of the governor’s trips to churches.
At one of those services, Jindal publicly recognized Walsworth and two other legislators in attendance.
The governor asked the lawmakers to stand so the congregation could thank them for their service to the state.
“So often we want your votes, but we need your prayers,” Jindal said in a video posted on YouTube.
Walsworth said he hasn’t had any complaints about the governor’s use of a state helicopter to attend the services.
“He’s working on Sunday and he’s meeting the people,” he said.
Walsworth said Jindal rarely talks about politics at a Sunday service. He said Jindal’s visits are an attempt to meet with people in what are the gathering places of rural communities.
“I personally tell people I’ve got two offices. The first is my regular legislative office and other is Walmart,” Walsworth said. “I go to the people and I think that’s what he’s trying to do.”