(Bloomberg) -- A federally owned utility’s purchase of corporate jets and a luxury helicopter once used by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has prompted a review by government auditors and calls for the chief executive officer’s resignation.
The more than $35 million in purchases by the Tennessee Valley Authority come as the utility has been raising residential rates and is already $25 billion in debt, said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a watchdog group.
"There is no way you can justify flying around in luxury helicopter with hardwood floors at the ratepayers’ expense," Smith said in an interview. "One of our key concerns here is this is a TVA executive gone wild with no accountability."
He called for the resignation of TVA president and Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson, whose $6.5 million compensation makes him the highest paid U.S. federal worker.
TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said the private aircraft are the only safe, timely option across the authority’s 80,000-square-mile, seven-state service area, which largely lacks commercial flights. The utility says its inspector general is looking into their use.
"We believe this is a valid use of the aircraft," Hopson said. He said the two jets have an operational cost per nautical mile of only 7 percent more than "comparable aircraft" and that the helicopter had "advanced safety features" that met the utilities’ needs.
Other groups joined the alliance in criticizing Johnson’s spending: Tennessee State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Debbie Dooley, a founder of the Tea Party political movement.
The Knoxville, Tennessee-based utility, created in 1933 to provide electricity and economic stability to a region hard-hit by the Great Depression, already maintains a fleet of aircraft and helicopters used for transmission line work, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. But critics say its unlikely that the two Cessna Citation Excel jets, the King Air turbo-prop plane and the helicopter with a Mercedes Benz interior upgrade will be used for transmission line work.
The utility, the nation’s largest government-owned power provider, is seeking to cut jobs and limit employee raises as part of a plan to pare operating expenses, according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report on the agency’s debt.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.