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UNC Chancellor James Moeser flies on the taxpayers' dime

The sky's no limit for this frequent flyer



UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser travels a lot for his job: to New York City and Washington, D.C., to meet with potential donors, to Nebraska to watch the Tar Heels play in the College World Series, to professional meetings throughout the state and sometimes across the country, among many other places.

In the 24 months between June 2005 and June 2007, Moeser took to the air for 48 business trips, an average of two a month, at a cost of more than $77,000 in taxpayer money, according to public records obtained by the Independent. Private dollars from UNC's development fund and other sources, such as groups that invited him as their guest, picked up additional costs.

Thirty-two of those trips were on aircraft owned by the state Department of Commerce and based at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The state's aircraft, which include a turbo-prop jet, a jet and a helicopter, are available to state government officials in hierarchal priority. First dibs go to commerce department leaders using them for economic development purposes, followed by the governor and legislative leaders. Though the UNC chancellor falls fifth out of the six categories—"other state officials on a first-come first-served basis"—Moeser was aboard one in every seven trips taken by a state jet in fiscal year 2006, according to flight logs and other documents.

Moeser's remaining 16 flights during the last two years were on smaller propeller planes belonging to the N.C. Area Health Education Centers (AHEC), a state medical program based at UNC-Chapel Hill whose planes fly out of Horace Williams Airport in Moeser's hometown.

AHEC placed a $200,000 down payment on two D-Jets, which cost $1.4 million each. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser will likely travel on these jets, as he is a frequent flier on AHEC planes. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DIAMOND AIRCRAFT
  • Photo courtesy of Diamond Aircraft
  • AHEC placed a $200,000 down payment on two D-Jets, which cost $1.4 million each. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser will likely travel on these jets, as he is a frequent flier on AHEC planes.

In late 2009, the fleet of aircraft at the chancellor's disposal will grow to include two state-of-the-art "very light jets," the newest—and very expensive—technology in small aircraft. They cost a cool $1.4 million apiece. AHEC's affiliate, a private nonprofit called Medical Air, Inc., put down a $200,000 deposit on April 16, just five days after AHEC and UNC officials—including the chancellor—were dazzled by a mock-up of the planes that visited the Chapel Hill airport.

As the head of the state's flagship university, Moeser travels for a variety of official purposes both in state and out of state. In general, he uses AHEC planes for in-state travel, including frequent flights to Charlotte for meetings and fundraising.

Out-of-state trips, primarily on the commerce department planes, generally involve either fundraising for UNC or national professional meetings, or a combination. Over the two-year period, Moeser went to New York six times and to D.C. 14 times, usually for one or both of those two purposes.

But he also uses the state's jets for occasional shorter trips, such as a Dec. 3, 2005, sojourn to Manteo, when he left RDU at 10:30 a.m. and departed Manteo just six hours later. The purpose? "To visit and have lunch with Senator [Marc] Basnight," according to the request filed by Moeser's assistant, Barbara Leonard.

UNC's Director of University Communications Mike McFarland calls the chancellor's trips a "time-management issue."

"The air service available to the chancellor permits him to use his time more efficiently," McFarland wrote in an e-mail.

Moeser was not available for an interview despite repeated requests by the Independent.

Moeser often flies with one or more companions. On the Manteo trip, for example, he was accompanied by his wife, Susan, who flew with him 15 times over the two years, and also Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Matt Kupec, another frequent traveling companion, who accompanied Moeser on at least eight trips in the same time period.

During his tenure as UNC's chief fundraiser, Moeser has aggressively pursued private donations to beef up the school's Carolina First Campaign, and his efforts—and his travels—have paid off: The school has broken fundraising records four years in a row, receiving $250.8 million in fiscal year 2007 and passing its $2 billion goal in February.

But not all of the chancellor's travels are about raising dough—some are just for raising school spirit.

In the last two years, Moeser traveled to many sporting events in which the Tar Heels were competing: twice to Omaha, Neb., to watch the men's baseball team play in the College World Series in June 2006 over two weekends, and to Ohio, Tennessee and New York for men's and women's NCAA basketball games.

Sports trips have drawn criticism from legislative leaders, who this spring voted to stop subsidizing those flights with state resources, and to charge the UNC system the full cost of officials traveling solely to attend games.

Overall, except for that new rule, UNC pays only a percentage of the total cost of the flights. For Moeser's 32 commerce department trips, the university paid about $62,000; AHEC flights cost an additional $15,000.

In the case of the commerce department planes, the state charges non-commerce users $550 per hour to use the jet, plus a $200 overnight fee when applicable. That doesn't approach the full cost of the trips, which is closer to $1,200 per hour, according to state officials. In sum, for every hour Moeser spends onboard the jet, the state subsidizes $650.

For AHEC aircraft, the university compensates AHEC at $1 per mile per passenger for in-state flights to cover costs such as gas and repairs. Out-of-state flights are $315 per hour, regardless of the number of passengers, or $1 per mile per passenger, whichever is cheaper, according to Nadine O'Malley, AHEC's associate director for administration and finance. AHEC absorbs some of the fixed costs associated with ferrying officials. Pilot and staff salaries are covered by AHEC state funds, and are commensurate with the typical workload required to fly and schedule trips, whether they are for AHEC-related flights or not.

In addition to the expenses paid with university dollars, some of Moeser's travel tabs are picked up by sponsoring organizations. For example, the Atlantic Coast Conference reimbursed the university for Moeser and other UNC officials to fly on a state plane to an ACC CEO meeting in Tallahassee, Fla., in September 2006, a cost of $1,880.

If all goes according to plan, Moeser will soon be boarding a "personal time machine," a nickname Diamond Aircraft has given its D-Jets, for his business trips.

"What if you could optimize your time and get more out of the 24 hours you have in a day? What if you could buy time?" the D-Jet brochure reads. "Diamond Aircraft's line of modern, fuel efficient and cost-effective aircraft enables you to do just that and experience all of the exciting opportunities life has to offer, big or small."

The two new planes are scheduled to be delivered to AHEC in late 2009. Tom Bacon, president of Medical Air, says the jets will improve efficiency and reduce costs for the AHEC program, and that his group researched the new technology for five years before deciding to purchase the D-Jets to update its aging fleet of Beechcraft Baron propeller planes.

But some critics say the short, in-state distances that AHEC pilots fly do not capitalize on the jets' efficiencies, and that the purchase was more the result of UNC Health System officials (many of whom sit on the Medical Air board) and Moeser being swayed by the marketing and the mock-up.

"I think Moeser's making a funny call, at best, buying those planes," says pilot Chris Hudson, a former lobbyist for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Hudson has flown out of Horace Williams since 1970 and is a member of N.C. Friends of Horace Williams Airport. "Those aircraft are not mission-appropriate for AHEC."

Moeser was not directly involved in purchasing the planes, says McFarland, the UNC spokesman, and the $2.8 million to buy them will not come from taxpayers.

"Using private funds, university-affiliated foundations intend to partner with the [UNC] health care system on the purchase," he says.

By the time the D-Jets arrive, AHEC may no longer have a home base in Chapel Hill. Horace Williams airport sits on land that the university plans to develop, and Moeser has been fighting political battles—with town leaders, AHEC pilots and even the legislature—to close it to make way for the Carolina North project for the last several years.

Flight data: Moeser's trips, June 2005-June 2007

  • Cost paid by UNC for Chancellor James Moeser to fly on AHEC and Department of Commerce planes: $77,077
  • In those two years, the farthest trip—and most expensive—was to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series, June 16-18 and June 24-27, 2006. He flew 982 miles (one-way), at a total cost of $9,130.
  • Moeser's trips took him out of town a total of 80 days, including some weekends.
  • Moeser's most frequent destination on AHEC flights was Charlotte, mainly for "outreach visits" with potential donors and meetings. His most frequent destination on Commerce flights was Washington, D.C., for meetings and fundraising.

—Stephen Largen

Sources: AHEC, N.C. Department of Commerce

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