State panel OKs Fossett search payment

CARSON CITY — A state panel including Gov. Jim Gibbons approved a payment of $419,000 to the Office of the Military on Wednesday to cover some of the cost of looking for missing adventurer Steve Fossett last fall.

Secretary of State Ross Miller objected, citing political considerations and leadership concerns in the lengthy and expensive search.

The request to reimburse the Office of Military for the search was approved by the Board of Examiners on a 2-1 vote, with the third member, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, in support.

The payment, which would come out of a state contingency fund, will be considered today by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee.

Miller said the request should be forwarded without a recommendation, requiring Gibbons to defend what an audit has described as reportedly “the largest search and rescue effort ever conducted for a person within the U.S.”

Miller said Gibbons, as head of the military, showed a lack of leadership in the Fossett search. Checks were being written that could not be covered, he said.

Much of the money spent on the search was because of the use of Blackhawk helicopters at cost of nearly $5,000 an hour when less expensive resources were available, Miller said.

The total cost of the search for the state agencies was more than $1.6 million. Of that, $1.4 million was related to the use of the Nevada National Guard in the search, which lasted for 17 days and encompassed about 20,000 square miles.

Miller asked whether safety or political concerns were at play in the use of the expensive helicopters

Maj. Jeff Zupon, who answered questions about the Guard’s role in the search, said: “I would say a little of both.”

Masto said she too had concerns about the search, but said the Office of the Military was operating in a support role. The office needs the money to train its National Guard members for deployment in support of troops abroad, she said.

Gibbons said the concern at the time was for finding Fossett.

As to the costs of the search, Gibbons said: “I left that decision to the head of the Department of Public Safety, who was recommending his view of what he saw on the ground in coordination with his Department of Emergency Management.”

Phil Galeoto was the chief of the public safety agency at the time. He has retired.

Gibbons said a review to look for ways to better manage such operations is under way. Gibbons said he did not know what was meant by politics being a factor in the search, other than Fossett’s fame.

Rescue efforts cannot be based on the costs involved, he said.

“This is a huge wide area that no one knew where he was,” Gibbons said. “It required an awful lot of resources and time to give the assurance that we had done everything possible to recover this person alive.”

Miller and Masto are Democrats. Gibbons is a Republican.

Miller cited the audit, prepared by the Division of Internal Audits, that found the search for Fossett, who took off Sept. 3 from hotel magnate Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch near Yerington, lacked an effective command structure.

The audit also recommended that the state Division of Emergency Management monitor the costs of any future searches while they are under way.

The National Guard sought reimbursement for the use of the Blackhawk and other helicopters used in the search, but not for all of its costs. The amount sought from the Interim Finance Committee’s contingency fund was reduced by a $200,000 donation from Barron Hilton.

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