After a firestorm of criticism, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie changed his mind Thursday and decided that he and the Republican Party will reimburse the state for his personal use of a state police helicopter, which includes trips to watch his oldest son's baseball games.
Christie's reversal came a day after a different spokesman said he would not make a reimbursement, defending the trips as appropriate.
Saying that he decided to reimburse the state only because the issue had become a distraction from the real problems facing New Jersey, the governor paid the state a total of $2,151 to cover the cost of two trips. He flew from Trenton to see his son's baseball games—one in Montvale on Friday and one near the governor's home in Mendham on Tuesday.
Christie said he was initially told by state police that he didn't have to reimburse the state for personal helicopter rides.
Christie answered questions about his use of a state police helicopter Thursday afternoon at a bill signing in Denville. He unapologetically said he was balancing his role as a father and job as a governor in using the helicopter to go to the baseball games.
After seeing his son's game Tuesday, Christie and his wife used the helicopter to fly 75 miles to the official governor's mansion in Princeton for dinner with a group of top GOP campaign contributors from Iowa, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Christie to run for president in 2012.
Christie spokeswoman Maria Comella told The Associated Press the state Republican Party is covering the cost of the trip to the governor's mansion, which cost $1,232, because the ride was for a political purpose.
"The governor understands the sensitivity about this kind of thing and believes he owes it to the public to ensure that this is not a distraction," she said. "We have some big, important reform measures that the governor is committed to getting done and that's where everyone's focus needs to be."
On Wednesday, spokesman Michael Drewniak said the governor "does not reimburse for security and travel" and that the use of the helicopter was "extremely limited and appropriate."
While the flights can cost $2,500 an hour, State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes on Wednesday said Christie's use of the helicopter didn't cost taxpayers anything extra because the pilots need to put in flying time anyway to keep their skills sharp.
Since taking office in January 2010, Christie has used the helicopter 33 times personally. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno used it once and one trip was used to transport staff between press events.
A list released by Christie's office on Thursday did not detail why a helicopter was needed, or where the governor flew to or from.
The most common use was for trips to New York City on nine occasions. When he goes to New York by car, it can be disruptive because the Lincoln Tunnel is shut down for the governor.
Two the New York trips were for media interviews. He also flew last month to the Ewing studios of Millennium Radio, where he does his "Ask the Governor" show.
He's used helicopters to tour flood zones, to get to four far-flung town hall meetings, to two funerals and two hospital visits with law enforcement officers.
Following criticism of other governors' use of taxpayer-funded helicopters, New Jersey governors no longer have a helicopter used exclusively for them. Instead, Christie has access to one of eight state police helicopters that are used for various reasons, including as medical helicopters when needed.
The one he used Tuesday was a month old and cost $12.5 million, according to police.
Democrats jumped on the controversy, calling the first-term Republican governor—who has built a national profile by fighting runaway spending by even the smallest state agencies and by calling for shared sacrifice by all public employees—a hypocrite. They said they would hold a hearing to investigate the use of the helicopter.
As governor, Christie has called for more oversight by his office of local boards and state agencies and has made vigorous use of his veto pen to stop spending by everyone from officials at a local sewer commission to the state Legislature - sometimes for spending of hundreds of dollars.
"I think people are sick and tired of watching their money wasted and I think it is a spiritual, physiological lift that the state of New Jersey will get if they realize that they actually have a government who is spending their money like it's their own, not like it is somebody else's," Christie said in December on the "Ask the Governor" show.
His persistent criticism of public spending and his attempts to stop it at every level had pundits and political observers questioning his initial defense of the helicopter trips.
"On the face of it, it was simply using a very expensive state resource to run some personal business and some political business," said Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University political scientist. "I think there are so many pieces to this puzzle that said this is not a politically smart move to do it."