Audit: Tennessee Valley Authority helicopter use broke rules

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Valley Authority’s use of a nearly $7 million executive helicopter was not always cost effective, and broke federal travel rules and its own policies, the organization’s inspector general said in a new report.

News outlets report that an internal audit of TVA helicopter use was released this week. It says many trips executives made on their helicopter were too short for such aircraft, like traveling between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Auditors determined that it cost around $1,100 to make the trips between the cities separated by roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers), and saved 15 to 24 minutes compared to driving.

The report says violations included flying without proper documentation and justification.

Assistant Inspector General David Wheeler says in the audit that the failures prevent TVA from ensuring travel costs are managed effectively and may cause reputational risks.

TVA bought a $6.95 million executive helicopter in 2016 equipped by Mercedes Benz to replace an aging aircraft. TVA President Bill Johnson said the new helicopter, previously used by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is safer and helps executives be more efficient with their time.

TVA used between seven and nine helicopters to make roughly 2,100 flights from October 2014 to the end of last year, according to the audit.

The federally owned electric utility is working to improve its procedures, including implementing new software this year to better record aircraft use, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said. But officials disagree with some of the audit’s conclusions about federal travel rules as there is no indication they apply to using aircraft for operational purposes, and 90-plus percent of TVA’s helicopter flights are for operational purposes, he said.

TVA has used aircraft since the 1930s to help service transmission lines across its seven-state region serving more than 9 million people, Hopson said. The TVA covers most of Tennessee and parts of six other states_Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia.

Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a statement that the environmental group understands TVA’s need for helicopters, but characterizes the audit’s findings as proof of luxury aircraft misuse and abuse of ratepayer dollars.