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Talking turkey? Illinois frequent fliers on the public dole
By Chuck Goudie | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 11/23/2009 12:04 AM | Updated: 11/23/2009 7:50 AM

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If turkeys could fly, more of them would escape the Thanksgiving cleaver and we'd be eating salami on Thursday.

But we all know that most turkeys can't fly, right?

Except the colorful species known as Getmethere-fastis Illanoyis.

That is the scientific name for the most frequent fliers in state government.

They have human names too, and I will provide you with those in a moment, so stay with me.

But first, in the interest of good science, a little background on the data.

Last week on ABC 7 the I-Team presented an investigative story called "Air Defense." In the piece, we revealed that state officials were being flown to and from work in Chicago and Springfield on a daily basis.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has a $24 million fleet of King Air prop jets that fly a regular shuttle schedule for the convenience of state employees. The planes each cost taxpayers a grand total of $3,000 an hour to operate when you figure in fuel, salaries, oil changes, etc. The woman in charge reminded us that they do not serve peanuts on board, so I suppose the cost could be even higher.

State rules dictate that the pecking order is from Gov. Quinn on down. We reported that the regular private plane travelers included many lower-echelon employees from nonessential state agencies such as the lottery, liquor commission and department on aging.

A further review of the data, obtained by scrappy ABC 7 producer Ross Weidner, reveals the most frequent of the frequent fliers and the most frequent flying state agencies.

The numbers provided to Ross under a Freedom of Information Act request, show the top 10 airborne agencies. They are ranked by the number of trips taken since Gov. Rod Blagojevich left office - allegedly the dawn of a new day in Illinois.

Attorney General, 326

Senate Operations, 257

House Operations, 251

Transportation, 222

Public aid, 188

Public health, 177

Revenue, 166

Secretary of State, 147

Human services, 122

DCFS, 109

The data also lists which state employees have flown the shuttle the most since Blagojevich was booted and where they work. Here's a look at who has 30 or more trips:

• Debbie Stone, 61 flights, department of natural resources

• Debbie Hagan, 54, attorney general's office

• Sydney Roberts, 46, inspector general's office

• Gary Hannig, 39, transportation department

• Ann Spillane, 39, attorney general's office

• Dr. Damon Arnold, 38, public health department

• Brian Hamer, 37, department of revenue

• Jodie Winnett, 34, department of revenue

• Jon Feipel, 32, department of commerce

• Michael Madigan, 31, Speaker of the House

• Jessica Pickens, 31, public health department

• Nancy Lindsay, 30, Illinois Workers Comp Commission

Some of the names on the list are not surprising, especially Chicago Democratic Rep. Mike Madigan, who controls the entire kingdom anyway, airspace and all.

But what about the most frequent flier? Not exactly a well-known name.

Deborah "Debbie" Stone has flown 61 trips the past few months between Chicago and Springfield in her job with the department of natural resources. Ms. Stone isn't even the top person at IDNR. She is the deputy director.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against natural resources.

But what could be so urgent about the state's trees, streams and animals that it's No. 2 official needs to fly to work more than any other person in Illinois government? Especially since her job was among two dozen DNR positions connected to former governor's Ryan and Blagojevich that were targeted for elimination last spring?

She obviously survived the cut, but what was so important it required 61 air trips? Were there last minute problems with the start of deer hunting season last weekend?

I contacted Ms. Stone, who has a master's degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, to ask about her frequent flier status. This is the response and I am quoting it precisely:

" am on Furlough Monday November 23 and Wednesday November 25, and in meetings the am of Tuesday.  My blackberry is not working.  I will get your email Tuesday afternoon the 24th, or when I return Monday the 30th… thank you and I appologize (sic) for the inconvenience."

So we have a civil servant whose business is so crucial that she has to fly the shuttle more times than any other state worker, yet her Blackberry doesn't work and she is unreachable by e-mail? No wonder she appologizes (sic).

I requested explanations from others at the state DNR including the director and public relations staff but received no responses.

If you look closely at the state DNR Web site there is an explanation - and how timely.

At the very top of their colorful homepage (dnr.state.il.us), on the far left side, is an illustration. It's a turkey and it sure looks like it's trying to fly.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at chuckgoudie@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie.