Board approves National Guard bill from Fossett search | NevadaAppeal.com
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Board approves National Guard bill from Fossett search

After more than an hour of questioning by Secretary of State Ross Miller, the Board of Examiners voted Wednesday to approve a $419,232 payment to the U.S. military to cover costs from the unsuccessful search for missing pilot and adventurer Steve Fossett.

Fossett disappeared Sept. 3 after taking off in his Bellanca aircraft from a private airstrip owned by the Hilton family southeast of Reno. Neither he nor the aircraft has been found.

But the search ran up a total cost of more than $1.6 million. More than $600,000 of that came out of the National Guard’s training budget. After the Hilton family contributed $200,000, that left the $419,232 which Adjutant General Cindy Kirkland said must be paid back or the guard won’t have funding for training to get its unit of Blackhawk helicopters ready for deployment to Iraq in October.

The decision was postponed earlier this month so the state’s internal auditors could look at how the search was managed. Auditor Bill Chisel told them there were questions raised by an expert from California who said the search “lacked an effective command structure.”

Miller questioned whether anyone was properly monitoring expenses such as the extensive use of Blackhawk helicopters during the 17-day search. Those aircraft, he pointed out, cost $4,767 an hour to fly and account for about a half-million dollars of the total tab.

Miller argued there were problems with the management of the operation, and problems getting paperwork that detailed how decisions were made to spend funds in the search,

No one has confirmed what will happen at the federal level if the state refuses to pay.

“Somebody was clearly writing checks the state can’t cover,” he said.

But in the end, Miller was the only one who refused to support making the payment from the state’s main contingency fund. There is now just $7 million to carry the state through to the start of the 2009 Legislature.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto agreed there were serious issues raised by the audit.

“But the Department of the Military, purely in this matter they are a support function,” she said.

She said she was concerned the shortfall would limit vital training for that unit as it prepares for combat.

“For that reason and because they were purely support personnel, I do not feel they should be penalized.”

She indicated, however, that the problems uncovered by the audit must be dealt with.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, who chairs the board, agreed and voted with Masto to approve the payment. He said after the meeting he has met several times with his director of public safety and head of emergency management as well as Guard officials and that they are working on a tighter and better set of policies for managing search and rescue operations.

The issue now goes to the legislative Interim Finance Committee which meets today.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.