By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY, NY-- Gov. Andrew Cuomo's family, including his celebrity girlfriend Sandra Lee, can fly on the state aircraft with him when he's on official business, according to a state ethics ruling Thursday.
The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics said that Cuomo would also be permitted to bring minor children who are not part of his family on the state aircraft if he's acting as the children's guardian.
A Cuomo spokesman said his three daughters rarely travel with him on state business, and Lee has not traveled on state aircraft and does not intend to. In a letter to JCOPE on Jan. 31 seeking an advisory opinion, Cuomo's counsel said in some cases Cuomo is entrusted with the care of a child who is friends with his daughter.
"Minor children who are not part of the First Family may accompany the governor on state aircraft without the need to reimburse the state provided that the governor is acting, during the relevant time, as the custodian or guardian of such children," the ruling found.
Criticism of governors' use of state aircraft dates back decades. During his first year in office, Cuomo drew scrutiny for travel to and from his Westchester County home.
The ruling Thursday, which was quietly posted on JCOPE's website, said Cuomo's use of state aircraft between Albany and New York City or Westchester is allowable if it is for state business.
But the ruling warned that "state aircraft as the standard mode of daily commuting, in the absence of other facts and circumstances justifying the need for travel by plane or helicopter, would not satisfy the standard."
Cuomo lives with Lee, a Food Network star, in New Castle, Westchester County.
Cuomo, who was elected in 2010, also can't use aircraft to attend political events, and any portion of a trip that's for fundraising would need to be refunded, the ruling said. But after his use of the aircraft is finished in New York City, Albany or Westchester, for official business, he is not barred from attending non-state business the same day after the trip is concluded, the ruling said.
The governor's office typically uses a seven-passenger plane and a four-passenger helicopter - which are both part of the State Police fleet.
In a letter to JCOPE, Cuomo's counsel Mylan Denerstein said Cuomo has used state aircraft less than his predecessors. She said State Police have advised that "transporting the governor by aircraft rather than automobile enhances the governor's safety and security." The state is more than 47,000 square miles.
JCOPE's ruling concurred: "Certainly, state resources can and should be used to transport the Governor to and from work, especially given security concerns."
JCOPE was formed in 2011 at Cuomo's urging, and the executive director, Ellen Biben, is a former prosecutor under Cuomo at the Attorney General's Office.
Late Gov. Hugh Carey was criticized for flying his children on the plane to his summer home on Shelter Island.
George Pataki knocked Cuomo's father, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, during their 1994 campaign for the use of state aircraft. But Pataki was soon criticized after he took office in 1995 for using state aircraft.