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Gov. OKd Costly Mission to Brazil

The state's tab was $147,187 for a plane and 15 people to bring an ailing legislator home.

June 03, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatched a military jet and a 15-person team in April to retrieve an ailing state senator who was visiting Brazil -- at a cost to taxpayers of $147,187, the administration confirmed Wednesday.

Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who has returned to work in Sacramento, said he was nearing the end of a nine-day goodwill trip to Brazil -- paid for with campaign funds -- when he started feeling pressure in his chest.

Vasconcellos said he had undergone heart bypass surgery nearly 20 years ago, and was concerned about a possible heart attack 6,300 miles from home.

The lawmaker, who turned 72 in May, checked into a hospital in Salvador, a coastal city in northern Brazil, and stayed for five days. Vasconcellos said he was in a heart and lung hospital, but wanted to return to his doctor in San Jose.

Meanwhile, his staff back home scrambled to find a way to get him back to California and requested help from Schwarzenegger's office. The governor ordered the California Air National Guard to retrieve Vasconcellos, and the Pentagon approved the airlift route, which was required because the mission was outside state boundaries.

On April 12, a California Air National Guard KC-135 military transport -- somewhat similar to a Boeing 707 -- took Vasconcellos back to California on a direct, 13-hour flight from Salvador to Moffett Field near San Jose. An ambulance met him there.

Margita Thompson, the governor's spokeswoman, said the trip cost taxpayers $147,187. "And 20 cents," she added. She estimated that 15 people on the flight were involved in helping Vasconcellos get back to California.

"They called and asked. The senator was in distress and transporting him back was a sensitive issue," Thompson said. "Obviously, he needed medical attention. There was definitely something wrong."

Joseph Cece, chief executive officer of AeroCare Air Ambulance in Chicago, said his firm would probably charge about $50,000 for a similar Brazil-to-San Jose flight on a Lear jet with a medical crew. Jeffrey Tolbert, president of AirMed International, said that a flight on a larger jet with a doctor, intensive care nurse, respiratory therapist and hospital-to-hospital service would cost $92,000.

Vasconcellos said he used campaign funds to pay for the flight to Brazil and hotel accommodations for the trip during the Legislature's Easter break. He visited Rio de Janeiro, then headed south to California's sister state, Parana, where he met with officials, and flew north to Salvador for the final leg.

He was traveling with Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), who returned home on his own.

Vasconcellos said doctors were concerned that traveling to the United States on more than one flight would have put additional pressure on his heart. He said he got good medical care and constant monitoring throughout the flight.

The senator, who leaves office this year after 38 years in the Legislature, said he underwent three angioplasties after returning to San Jose, and is consulting with doctors about another possible heart surgery.

Vasconcellos said he was feeling better and was playing racquetball again. He was thankful that the state supplied transportation home and that the governor authorized it.

"I was on a Senate trip on behalf of the state and they got me home. I'm grateful," he said. "When your life is at stake, money is not something you think about."

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