By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield and dozens of other Alabama politicians, their spouses, their lobbyists and their staffers returned home from the economic development trip to the famed Paris Air Show last week. But Canfield has yet found the time to keep a promise to answer questions about the trip’s total cost to taxpayers.
Communications Director for the Department of Commerce Gerri Miller wrote in an email dated June 20 concerning the Alabama Political Reporter’s request for information, “I informed Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield about your questions and he wanted me to let you know that he will respond when he returns.”
Repeated calls and emails this week have gone unanswered by the Secretary’s office.
Canfield issued a press release earlier this week to the Montgomery Advertiser, stating that the “Department of Commerce estimates that a trip to the Paris Air Show that included Gov. Robert Bentley cost the state between $88,000 and $97,000.” The release also stated that “majority of the cost” went to a booth, graphics and set up.”
This is a shadow of the actual expense that Alabama taxpayers paid for the trip. According to the Governor’s spokesperson Jeremy King, around 100 Alabamians were on hand at the posh event. King said the estimate of about 100 travelers, most on the taxpayers’ dime, “factors in the local economic developers, etc.”
A press releases written in Paris by the Birmingham-based public relations firm Big Communication listed a bevy of mayors, county commissioners and other government officials who made the trip. Also a train of high-paid lobbyists were on hand, including former Governor Bob Riley, a well-paid lobbyist for EADS, the parent company of Airbus. The French aerospace giant EADS is “a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services, employing nearly 135,000 people at over 170 sites worldwide,” according to the corporate website.
Also lobbying at the exclusive Air show was Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. Hubbard said through his communications director, state employee, Rachel Adams, that the Southeast Alabama Gas District (SEAGD) paid for Hubbard and his wife’s junket to Paris.
Hubbard has a consulting contract with SEAGD paying him $12,000 a month for “business development.” Repeated calls for information about the details of Hubbard’s work with SEAGD’s has gone unanswered by CEO Greg Henderson, as well as Ozark Mayor Billy Blackwell, chairman of the SEAGD board of trustees.
Although the Speaker was seen sitting at the elbow of the Governor during meetings in Paris, the exact duties he performed are unclear. Hubbard’s contract with SEAGD states that he is responsible to provide monthly progress reports and expenses to the company. However, request for these reports have been denied by the quasi public-private company.
These types of government funded trips are not uncommon. But what is unusual is the lack of transparency in the Alabama process. Canfield has not disclosed where he or the first couple stayed. He has not disclosed who paid for outings such as the champagne brunch the Alabama delegation attended at the famed home of King Louis IXV, the Palace of Versailles.
Stefania Cumuze, Canfield’s Special Assistant, traveled with him to the event. Also on the trip was Cumuze’s mother, Julie Burge Lindsey, whom the governor’s office referred to as a “volunteer.” Canfield has not given an accounting for volunteers or how someone would become a volunteer for a state trip to France.
And, he doesn’t disclose that Big Communications received almost $300,000 in taxpayer funds before the Air Show or that the company was a part of the contingency traveling with the governor.
Other governors and commerce secretaries have made such pilgrimages to Paris, but not always with the glowing reports Canfield has received from the press.
Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley did not attend the Paris Air Show this year because of the criticism she received two years ago over “lavish spending,” according to the Charleston Post and Courier. The newspaper wrote a detailed article outlining the “swanky style and high costs of the state’s mission,” including spending $158,000 in taxpayer funds. Haley decided to stay home even though her state is in competition for aerospace business.
Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma were outraged when the state spent $84,000 ON THEIR OFFICIALS’ PARIS JUNKET to promote “Oklahoma’s aviation industry – and it cost to taxpayers,” according to an AP report in the Tulsa World newspaper.
IN OKLAHOMA, the Associated Press found that “taxpayers footed the bill for $400-a-night hotel rooms at a luxury Paris hotel, $188 daily meal per diems and more than $3,000 in air fare.”
Conservative lawmaker, state Sen. Steve Russell of Oklahoma City told AP “The government’s role is to leave people alone so that they can get to work, through less regulation and reasonable taxation, and to reward incentive and not punish manufacturing and innovation.”
No similar outcry has been heard in Alabama from the press or from conservatives.