TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Criticism started coming in like fastballs Wednesday over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's use of a state helicopter to fly him and his wife to his son's high school baseball game.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor who has been courted to run for president because of his get-tough approach to state spending, and wife Mary Pat arrived just before the game between Delbarton High School and St. Joseph's of Montvale in Montvale on Tuesday night.
The pair stepped off the helicopter and into a car waiting nearby, which drove them 100 yards to the baseball field.
Flanked by state police troopers, the Christies watched the game from the stands until the fifth inning. Play was stopped briefly while the helicopter took off.
The governor's oldest son, Andrew, attends Delbarton, a private Catholic prep school, where he plays catcher — a position Christie also played in high school.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said there was nothing inappropriate or illegal about the governor's use of the helicopter, which he said is relied on only when Christie's schedule demands it.
The Republican governor has heightened his national profile by fighting runaway spending by even the smallest state agencies and by calling for shared sacrifice by all public employees. He has issued nearly two dozen vetoes of spending by state authorities — some for less than $1,000.
"Gov. Christie obviously doesn't include himself in his hollow call for shared sacrifice," Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Turnersville, said as he called on the governor to publicly detail his use of state police helicopters and reimburse the taxpayers for all costs associated with personal and political trips.
"Gov. Christie must learn that taxpayers cannot afford his helicopter joyrides," Moriarty said.
"It's inappropriate," said state Democratic Party chairman John Wisniewski. "The only thing I can think of is that he wanted to look presidential flying in. It's his version of Marine One."
The governor had no public schedule Tuesday but had a dinner meeting later at the governor's mansion in Princeton with a delegation of Iowans who tried — unsuccessfully — to persuade him to run for president.
"It is a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands," Drewniak said, declining to give specifics. "This has historically been the case in prior administrations as well, and we continue to be judicious in limiting its use."
Drewniak declined to release the governor's schedule for Tuesday or say where Christie was coming from when he arrived at the game.
"The governor gets EPU (executive protection unit) coverage every day to and from Trenton or anywhere he travels on government or personal time, 24 hours a day," he said.
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for state Attorney General Office, said that as the state executive, Christie can use the helicopter "at any time for any purpose." When asked if Christie must reimburse the state for personal use, Loriquet said: "That's for the governor's office to answer."
Other governors have been criticized for their use of helicopters. During her successful 1993 gubernatorial campaign, Christie Whitman criticized Gov. Jim Florio's use of a state helicopter, while Gov. James E. McGreevey was criticized for using a state helicopter to take 14 non-governmental trips.
The Democratic State Committee reimbursed the state $18,200 on McGreevey's behalf.
At that time, Republicans were quick to accuse McGreevey of abusing perks.
GOP Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, a close friend of Christie's and the chair of his campaign, called on McGreevey to make all of his travel and entertainment expenses public.
"The people of New Jersey should not have to wait for another news story for the McGreevey administration to take responsibility for abusing taxpayer dollars during a state budget crisis," Kyrillos said in 2002.
After Gov. Jon Corzine nearly died in an auto accident on the Garden State Parkway, a special commission recommended governors use helicopters more often as a safety concern. But Corzine, a multimillionaire, rented private helicopters for personal use.
Renting private choppers doesn't come cheap. HeliFlite, based in Newark, charges roughly $4,650 per hour before any potential discounts are applied that could bring the price under $4,000.
Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club said that it can make sense for governors to use helicopters on long haul business trips over gas-guzzling SUVs.
"If you have an event in Cape May and then Princeton, it makes sense," he said, "but I'm talking about official state business, I'm not talking about going to a baseball game."
Wayne Parry in Atlantic City contributed to this story.