Flying high to promote WVU comes with a multimillion dollar price tag

West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee talks with Lead iTeam Reporter Kennie Bass about the cost of his private jet travel around the country. (Eyewitness News Photo)

He is the unqestioned charismatic leader of the state's flagship university, and E. Gordon Gee says he fully embraces his responsibilities as West Virginia University's president. His schedule is packed with faculty and staff meetings, donor events and impromptu gatherings with students where they live and relax.

But such a hectic pace comes with a cost.

E. Gordon Gee certainly gets around. Now in his 70s, Gee said he is on a mission to spread WVU's message far and wide, raise its profile and ensure a stable and prosperous future.

"I run a $3 billion organization with 25,000 people that I'm responsible for, another 33,000 students," Gee said. "The university is the single largest employer in the state. We create more jobs. We created more economic activity. I spend a lot of time in all 55 counties. And then we have activities in 50 states, and we have activities all over the world, so it's a very busy place."

One way he accomplishes those goals is by travel and much of that is through the air. The Eyewitness News iTeam obtained a legislative auditor's report that examines Gee's flights using a private air charter company based in Latrobe, Pa. L.J. Aviation has been ferrying Gee around the country since 2014.

The information found from May 2 of that year to June 15, 2017, Gee has flown with L.J. Aviation 305 times, carrying a price tag of $2,180,770. WVU is quick to point out that money doesn't come from taxpayers. It does come, however, from tuition and fees paid for by WVU parents and students.

"That figure I view as an investment. Not simply in me, it's an investment in the rest of the university because other people use the airplane, our coaches, staff, a variety of other people. And so when I came I told them that, you know I was nearly 70, I was 70 . And I said, 'Hey, look, I have no time to waste. I'm only going to be here for a very short period of time. I want to make the best use out of my time, which is my most precious possession.' This allows me as a university president to make the best use of our time," Gee said.

Nearly a third of Gee's total, 93 of those flights, involved flying from Morgantown to Charleston at a cost $507,520, an average of $5,477 every time Gee took off in Monongalia County and landed in Kanawha. The flights shave about an hour one way from the nearly two and a half hour driving time between WVU and the capital city.

"You know, it's three hours down, it's three hours back," Gee said. "If it's a half an hour down and I do our business and then I come back and do our business here. You know, my purpose in life is to make certain that these students and these faculty and these staff and all of the people who are incredibly important to this institution that they feel that they have an advocate. And I'm going to be there advocate. I'm not going to waste any time. I have no time to waste."

Del. Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, has been critical of Gee's flying habits. Folk is a former charter pilot who now flies for a major airline, so he is very familiar with the industry, its advantages, disadvantages and costs.

"I drive 305 miles I believe, over 300 miles from the Eastern Panhandle as many people in the panhandle do to come down here and serve the people," Folk said. "And we don't get air travel. We don't make three quarters of a million dollars to come down here and serve the people. I just think it's very egregious to flaunt that kind of frivolous spending."

Folk said it makes little sense for Gee to constantly fly from Morgantown to Charleston when the trip is so easily driven.

"For somebody that's supposed to be representing our foundational institution but yet he's too good to drive on I-79 like the rest of us have to?" Folk said. "I think that's ridiculous. I'm sure he's got a fleet of cars up in Morgantown that he should be, even if he's not driving himself he's got plenty of staff that can drive him down here."

Another favorite destination of Gee's is Columbus, Ohio, where he flew 57 times from 2014 to last year. During that same time, Gee flew to Washington, D.C. , 38 times. By car, it's 205 miles from Morgantown to Columbus, 210 to D.C.

Besides the top three destinations, Gee also is a frequent traveler to Texas as chair for the Big 12 Board of Directors Executive Committee. Those flights routinely cost more than $30,000, including a $37,100 trip on May 30 of last year.

"You've got to tell your story. And this allows me in so many different ways to tell the story, and I'm proud of the story we're telling." Gee said.

Gee also serves on the board of the Boys Scouts of America. A May 25, 2016, trip to San Diego and Houston for Boy Scout business and fundraising events cost $39,200.

"I am on the executive committee of the Boy Scouts of America," Gee said. "We have built, the Boy Scouts have built, a billion dollar Summit south of Beckley and I've been very involved in that."

Gee's December 3, 2016, trip to the NCAA Women's College Cup in San Jose, Calif., to cheer on the WVU women's soccer team in its quest for a national championship cost $38,115. To put all this in perspective, commercial first-class airfare between Pittsburgh and San Jose would have been about $2,000, round trip.

In total during the audit period, Gee took seven flights which cost more than $30,000 each and one which cost $28,000.

"I have no concern about the money because it returns 10 times, 15 times, 20 times," Gee said. "If it didn't, then I'd be the first to say to you I need to get the hell out of this job."

Folk has a much different view.

"This is all done, no matter how you boil it down or distill it, it's taxpayer subsidies of frivolous spending," Folk said.

The money to pay for Gee's travel comes from tuition and fees. That has parents and students asking a lot of questions. We hear from them in part two of this iTeam investigation, which you can watch here:

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