Taxpayers help finance mayor’s D.C. trip

By Joshua Benton and David Patch
Blade Staff Writers

Page 15

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner got Alaskan salmon with portabello mushrooms, lamb crusted with pecans and toasted caraway seeds, and barbecued peach ragout.

Toledo taxpayers got the bill.

The city treasury will pick up half the cost of the mayor’s Tuesday night trip to Washington to attend his first state dinner at the White House.

The taxpayer tab will include half of the $1,000 charter flight booked through Grand Aire Express, as well as half of the hotel bill in Washington.

The other half will be paid either by the mayor or his campaign treasury, according to Arturo Quintero, the mayor’s executive assistant. Those funds will be used to pay the cost of the trip for Mr. Finkbeiner’s wife, Amy.

But the cost to taxpayers will be lower than it could have been, thanks to a deal offered by Grand Aire.

The air charter company based at Toledo Express Airport would normally charge between $3,000 and $3,500 to make the trip to Washington and back. But when Mr. Quintero approached Grand Aire about flying to D.C., the company decided to cut the mayor a deal and offer a lower rate.

For some airport watchers, the deal sounded too good to be true. That’s because Mr. Finkbeiner was one of the forces that brought Grand Aire to Toledo Express in 1997 in a controversial move. Part of the deal to bring the company to Toledo was a new airplane parking apron. The city of Toledo, at the mayor’s direction, spent $335,000 to build the apron.

But Tahir Cheema, Grand Aire’s president, said there was nothing improper about the cut rate he offered the mayor. “I would do it for the next mayor, too,” he said. “You help people when you can.

“It’s not the first time we gave a discount to a dignitary who needs to be somewhere,” he said, pointing to Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who flew from Cleveland to Toledo with Grand Aire for free when he was scheduled to speak last month at the annual meeting of the Corporation for Effective Government.

One air charter industry source didn’t buy that explanation.

“That might as well be a campaign contribution,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Cheema said the discount shouldn’t count as a campaign contribution because the mayor’s trip was not for campaign purposes. He added that he recently gave $250 to Mr. Finkbeiner’s campaign fund.

Yesterday morning, before he left for a conference in New Orleans, Mr. Finkbeiner said that the dinner was “terrific, with all the pomp and circumstance.”

The state dinner, honoring Hungarian President Arpad Goncz, was Mr. Finkbeiner’s first, though he’d been to several informal meetings at the White House.

On Tuesday evening, the mayor attended his own 60th birthday party in the Warehouse District, but for only a few minutes. He and his wife left the party, which doubled as a campaign fund-raiser, via helicopter after the mayor made a few brief remarks.

The helicopter, whose use was donated to the mayor by a retired Toledoan, dropped the Finkbeiners off at Toledo Express Airport, where he boarded a plane for Reagan National Airport.

The flight, on a Metroliner turbo-prop, took about an hour and 40 minutes. Mr. Quintero said that the mayor could have gotten to Washington more quickly if he had gone with one of several other charter services in the Toledo area, but said the other businesses couldn’t match Grand Aire’s price.

Once they arrived in Washington, the Finkbeiners were whisked away by car to the White House. City council president Peter Ujvagi, who was born in Hungary, also attended the event but traveled separately from the mayor.

Among the dignitaries at the state dinner: decorating maven Martha Stewart (“I didn’t see her,” Mr. Finkbeiner said); Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Nagy (“a very nice man, very well spoken”); and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (“he kept whispering things to the President”). Singer Judy Collins provided the entertainment.

The Finkbeiners returned on the same charter the next morning.