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October 23, 2017

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National Guard: Fossett search prolonged by Gibbons (UPDATED)

A trail of e-mails and an audit performed for the state Board of Examiners suggests that the lengthy search last year for adventurer Steve Fossett was spurred. in part, by political pressures.

The search for Fossett cost $1.6 million and lasted 15 days, which the state audit said was the largest and most extensive in state history.

Gov. Jim Gibbons "was personally responsible for the NGNV (National Guard Nevada) continuing the search beyond what would have been a 'normal' search duration," according to a March 11 e-mail from Nevada National Guard Maj. Jeff Zupon, summarizing a meeting between Nevada National Guard leadership and the governor's office senior staff.

Another e-mail that was part of the investigation said that a typical search-and-rescue operation lasts three days.

Gibbons downplayed his role in the operation, which he acknowledged lacked a coordinated command structure - a finding in the state audit. He said he left decisions about the size and scope of the investigation to senior staff.

When asked about whether politics played a role in the scope and size of the search, he said: "The political considerations are for the fact (Fossett) was a highly respected member of the aviation community, and a high number of people throughout the world, very influential people throughout the world, were seeking some sort of ability to assist."

He later backtracked, and said he had never received a call from anyone urging him to continue the search.

"I have no idea what political considerations mean. I was only surmising," he said.

Secretary of State Ross Miller at Wednesday's Board of Examiners meeting questioned Zupon and others involved in the search, particularly focusing on the decision to use a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter at a cost of over $4,750 an hour. The total cost for the use of the federal helicopter was $516,000. "Somebody was clearly writing checks the state wasn't prepared to cash," Miller said after grilling National Guard officers at Wednesday's Board of Examiners meeting.

In a later interview, Miller said, "There was pretty poor leadership from the governor."

When Miller asked Zupon whether the decision to use the more expensive Blackhawk helicopter was political or for safety reasons, Zupon said, "A little bit of both."

The state Board of Examiners -- made up of Gibbons, Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto -- voted on Wednesday to move forward with plans for the state to reimburse the federal government for $419,000 in costs.

Miller voted against the move, saying that the governor's staff needed to answer questions in front of legislators about decisions made. Masto and Gibbons overrruled him.

The governor defended the cost of the search.

"If my spouse, or your spouse, or anyone else was out there, I would hope we would not sit around and judge whether or not their life was worth X number of dollars. That’s crazy," he said.

When a reporter asked Gibbons if Fossett was treated more favorably because who he was, Gibbons acknowledged the possibility.

“That may be the case," Gibbons said. "When you look and see somebody of the stature of Steve Fossett out there, the notoriety, the significance of the role he played in aviation. It's like Amelia Earhart."

Gibbons spokesman, Ben Kieckhefer, sought to explaine Zupon's March 11 e-mail in which he said the governor was "personally responsible" for the continued search for Fossett. Gibbons said that decisions on the size and scope of the search were left to his senior staff.

Kieckhefer said that Zupon was merely laying out scenarios for how the state could avoid reimbursing the federal government. One of those scenarios involved the governor using the contacts he made back in Washington, D.C., when he was a congressman.

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