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REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION

EBay plane sale hinted at by Palin didn't happen

The jet she deemed wasteful was instead bought privately later.

September 05, 2008|Jason George and Andrew Zajac | Chicago Tribune

JUNEAU, ALASKA — When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin sought to illustrate her frugality and flair to delegates at the GOP convention, she described how she had disposed of a corporate jet acquired by her unpopular predecessor.

"That luxury jet was over the top," the Republican vice presidential nominee said to loud cheers Wednesday. "I put it on EBay."

Palin's statement implied that the plane had sold through the online auction site, which is revered for empowering millions of small entrepreneurs. And on Thursday, Palin's spokeswoman, Maria Comella, insisted that the transaction had occurred.

The plane did sell -- but not on EBay. The aircraft was offered on the website but didn't find a buyer.

Instead, the 23-year-old, 10-seat Westwind II was sold in August 2007 for $2.1 million -- about $300,000 less than a broker's asking price -- to a Valdez, Alaska, entrepreneur, according to news accounts.

Although Palin characterized the plane as an extravagance of former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who arranged for its purchase in November 2005, the aircraft saw heavy use transporting Alaska convicts, according to flight records and corrections officials.

Because Alaska does not have adequate prison capacity, it contracts for space with a private facility near Phoenix. On Thursday, 24% of the 4,546 Alaskans in jail or prison were serving their time at Arizona's Red Rock Correctional Center, said Richard Schmitz, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

When the state began using the plane in November 2005, prisoner transport accounted for 58% of the jet's use, and Murkowski's office used it 23% of the time. Over time, Murkowski's usage increased.

Today, without the jet, the U.S. Marshals Service transports 90% of Alaska prisoners to Arizona, with Alaska Airlines taking the rest on commercial flights.

"The marshal plane is much bigger; they can take 100 people at a time," Schmitz said. "But it comes from the Midwest somewhere and is less frequent."

The last marshal flights to and from Arizona transported 145 prisoners at a cost of $127,000, or about $875 per prisoner. That's cheaper than the jet, whose per-prisoner cost averaged $1,674.

Though a case could be made for jet travel in such a vast state, Murkowski's acquisition of the plane helped seal voters' perception of him as out of touch and bolstered Palin's campaign as a reformer. It proved key to their 2006 primary race, which she won.

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