It was a photo op meant to galvanize Republican voters, one that showed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis posing in front of a helicopter Sunday on the south Texas border.
But the display is creating an unwanted spotlight for DeSantis: The helicopter is funded by Texas taxpayers, raising questions about the political nature of the flight and its cost.
Federal law requires presidential candidates pay the fair market rate for non-commercial air travel and reimburse flight providers. In this case, the Texas Department of Public Safety owns the 2008 Eurocopter, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database of aircraft tail numbers.
In addition, the ethics rules in Texas prohibit officials from using state resources in support of political campaigns.
Mr. DeSantis’s office suggested that he was visiting the border in a dual capacity, as governor and presidential candidate, but his official agenda as governor omitted to mention it. Jeremy Redfern, a spokesman for DeSantis in the governor’s office, referred questions Wednesday about the helicopter flight to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
That agency said Mr. DeSantis was briefed during his visit on joint immigration enforcement activities between Florida and Texas at the border, part of a program known as Operation Lone Star.
“The briefing included an aerial tour provided by DPS to give Governor DeSantis a clearer understanding of how Florida’s resources are being used along our southern border and to see the challenges firsthand,” Ericka Miller, spokesperson for the Texas Dept. Public Safety, he said in an email on Wednesday.
DeSantis’s campaign shared the photo of the helicopter on Twitter Monday, the same day he proposed a series of far-right immigration policies in a campaign speech in Eagle Pass, a small Texas border town.
Reflecting the divided nature of his duties, Mr. DeSantis wore a short-sleeved white shirt Sunday that read “Governor Ron DeSantis” on the right and “DeSantis for President” on the left.
Mr. DeSantis’ use of the taxpayer-funded helicopter was first reported by the daily beast, who also noted that he took a boat tour of the Rio Grande as part of his visit. A Fox News reporter accompanied him air and by water.
That boat is owned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, confirmed The New York Times. The state agency had already deployed the vessel there through a mutual aid agreement and as part of the Operation Lone Star program.
Mr. Redfern, in a statement, disputed that there was anything inappropriate about Mr. DeSantis’ trip on the Florida taxpayer-owned boat.
“Participating in a routine patrol with FWC is not outside the scope of the governor’s job as chief executive officer of the state,” he said.
Myles Martin, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission, said in an email Wednesday that he could not comment on specific candidates or their activities. But he pointed out that federal campaign finance rules require candidates to reimburse federal, state or local government entities when they use planes they own to campaign.
Political committees must also pay the costs associated with other modes of transportation, including travel by boat.
Mr. DeSantis has previously faced accusations that he is inappropriately blurring the lines between his official duties and his campaign.
As Mr. DeSantis prepared to sign Florida’s record budget earlier this month, state legislators and lobbyists said the governor’s staff called them seeking campaign contributions or political endorsements, a task that would normally be done by members of the Mr. DeSantis’ campaign. The talks left lobbyists and lawmakers afraid that Mr. DeSantis would veto their budget bills if they didn’t comply, they said.
And when DeSantis signed the budget, he vetoed several bills sponsored by state Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican who backed former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican frontrunner. Mr. Gruters accused the governor of retaliation, calling him “mean” and saying he had chosen to “punish ordinary Floridians” because of a political disagreement.
The governor’s office denied that the vetoes were political. And at a news conference in Tampa last week, DeSantis said there was nothing wrong with aides in his office supporting his campaign in his “spare time.”
But Nikki Fried, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, filed state ethics and elections complaints against three top officials in the governor’s office. “Any reasonable person could infer from the reports that our governor was holding the state budget hostage in exchange for political endorsements and donations, actions that are unethical and illegal,” Fried said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Mr. DeSantis also signed a bill that protects his travel records from public disclosure, preventing the accountability of taxpayer funds used to cover security and other costs during his campaign trips.