It was a photo op meant to turbocharge Republican voters, one that showed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis posing in front of a helicopter Sunday on the southern Texas border.
But the display is creating an unwanted spotlight for Mr. DeSantis: The helicopter is funded by Texas taxpayers, raising questions about the political nature of the flight and its cost.
Federal law requires presidential candidates pay the fair market rate for non-commercial air travel and reimburse flight providers. In this case, the Texas Department of Public Safety owns the 2008 Eurocopter, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database of aircraft tail numbers.
Also, ethics rule in Texas prevent officials from using state resources to support political campaigns.
Mr. DeSantis’ office suggested he was visiting the border in dual capacities, as both governor and presidential candidate, but his official schedule for governor failed to mention this. Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’ spokesman in the governor’s office, asked the Texas Department of Public Safety questions about the helicopter flight on Wednesday.
That agency said Mr. DeSantis was briefed during his visit on joint immigration enforcement activities between Florida and Texas at the border, part of a program known as Operation Lone Star.
« The briefing included an aerial tour provided by DPS to give Governor DeSantis a clearer understanding of how Florida’s resources are being used along our southern border and to see the challenges firsthand, » Ericka Miller, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, he said in an email Wednesday.
Mr. DeSantis’ campaign shared the helicopter photo on Twitter on Monday, the same day it proposed a series of far-right immigration policies in a campaign speech in Eagle Pass, a small Texas border town.
Reflecting the divided nature of his duties, Mr. DeSantis wore a white, short-sleeved shirt on Sunday with « Governor Ron DeSantis » written on the right and « DeSantis for President » on the left.
Mr. DeSantis’ use of taxpayer-funded helicopter was first reported by The daily beast, who also noted that she took a boat tour on the Rio Grande as part of her visit. A reporter from Fox News accompanied him air and from waterfall.
That boat is owned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the New York Times confirmed. The state agency had previously deployed the ship there through a mutual aid agreement and as part of the Operation Lone Star program.
Mr. Redfern, in a statement, disputed that there was anything inappropriate about Mr. DeSantis’s trip on the Florida taxpayer-owned boat.
« Participating in a routine patrol with FWC is not outside the scope of the governor’s job as chief state executive, » he said.
Myles Martin, spokesman for the Federal Election Commission, said in an email Wednesday that he was unable to comment on specific candidates or their activities. But she pointed out that federal campaign finance rules require candidates to reimburse federal, state or local government entities when they use aircraft they own to campaign.
Political committees must also reimburse costs associated with other means of transport, including travel by boat.
Mr. DeSantis has previously faced allegations that he inappropriately blurred the lines between his official duties and his campaign.
As Mr. DeSantis prepared to sign off on Florida’s record-breaking budget earlier this month, state lobbyists and lawmakers said the governor’s staff called them to seek campaign contributions or policy endorsements, activities that normally would have been done by members of Mr. DeSantis’ campaign. The conversations left lobbyists and lawmakers fearful Mr. DeSantis would veto their plans from the budget if they didn’t comply, they said.
And when Mr. DeSantis signed off on the budget, he vetoed several bills sponsored by State Senator Joe Gruters, a Republican who backed former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican frontrunner. Mr. Gruters accused the governor of punishment, calling him « bad » and saying he chose to « punish ordinary Florida residents » over a political disagreement.
The governor’s office denied that the vetoes were political. And at a press conference in Tampa last week, Mr. DeSantis said there was nothing wrong with aides in his office supporting his campaign in their « spare time. »
But Nikki Fried, the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, filed election and state ethics complaints against three top officials in the governor’s office. « Any reasonable person could infer from the report that our governor was holding the state budget hostage in exchange for political endorsements and donations — actions that are both unethical and illegal, » Ms. Fried said in a statement.
Earlier this year, DeSantis also signed into law a bill protecting his travel logs from public disclosure by preventing a taxpayer funds account from being used to cover safety and other costs on his campaign trips.