Wednesday, May 4, 2011

'Chopper key' and the Vela Brothers helicopter ride...

 'Chopper Key' and the Vela brothers helicopter ride...

The Vela brothers are best known for controversially funding Winston Peters election helicopter

Prime Minister John Key apparently  likes his helicopter rides.

But the latest ride revealed on 3 News tonight is different to all the rest.

Key usually commandeers the Air Force Iroquois like last month when he needed to get back to a Golf Club dinner from the V8s in Hamilton.

He also used the Air Force in January when he went to the Parachute Music Festival and sang a song.

But the ride in my story tonight was a private "charter" in a privately-owned helicopter - the only one on public record that Key has used taxpayer money to pay for.

I say "chartered" because it was initially a free ride courtesy of fishing and horse-racing magnates the Vela Brothers.

Then he changed his mind and decided to pay - and got the taxpayer to cover the $2081.25 cost.

The helicopter took Key into the Waikato bush to open the Te Araroa walkway on Friday December 11, 2009

Key could have been flown back from Mt Pirongia to Hamilton and been driven home to Auckland in his Crown Limo.

But the pilot of the Vela's helicopter offered to take him to Auckland - and Key accepted.

He says he had "meetings" that were "security related". His office won't say any more, even what "security" means. I asked them if that meant "national security" and they wrote back saying "we don't comment on security".

Key says he initially didn't know the Vela Brothers owned the helicopter.

But in the days or weeks after Key got off the helicopter at Mechanics Bay below his Parnell home back in Auckland he found out and decided he didn't want the free ride any more.

"When we got back to Auckland we later on decided ‘well look there was just the risk it could infer some sort of benefit or favour’ and so my office paid for it."

He's effectively saying it wouldn't be a good look if it got out.

So at some stage afterwards, Key's office got back to the Velas and asked to pay - the date on the invoice in December 31, 2009.

It turns out the Velas don't actually make the helicopter available for charter - a call to their office last week confirmed that.

Peter and Philip Vela might be publicity shy but they need no introduction.

Vela Fishing is one of New Zealand's biggest privately owned companies. The brothers have turned their interest in horse breeding into an empire - Pencarrow Stud and NZ Bloodstock, which runs the Karaka yearling sales.

But they really hit the headlines before the last election as controversial financial backers of Winston Pet

One of the Vela helicopters was even part of the coverage. The Dominion-Post reported that Peters demanded the free use of a helicopter during the 1999 campaign from his wealthy backers in the Vela family.

"Tell those bastards I want a helicopter. Don't give me this crap about the machine needing repairs," he said.

So Key probably didn't want to be linked to the Vela helicopter if news of the ride got out.

And it would have - Key was required to declare the helicopter ride as a "gift" in the MPs' register of pecuniary interests.

All MPs are required to put gifts of $500 or more in there. For instance, in the same year Key declared "Bottled Water from Spring Fresh Limited", and tickets to four All Blacks games.

These are in the Register of Pecuniary Interests 2010 - which requires the declaration of all assets and gifts reecieved in the year to January 31, 2010.

The Vela helicopter ride was on Friday December 11, 2009.

The Velas issued an invoice on December 31.

The invoice was not stamped as recieved by Key's office but his staff have told me "it would have been recieved shortly after, given the public holidays around the time".

Key's office stamped "approved" on March 1 2010.

Key's office asked Ministerial Services for "retrospective approval" on March 3. Invoice stamped "recieved" by Ministerial Services on March 3.

It then went on to Ministerial Services "revenue and expenditure" section on March 8.

Key's office told me: "Clearly, this office had recieved the invoice before the register of pecuniary interests was published, so the use of the helicopter was not treated as a gift."

So using the taxpayer to pay for it meant Key avoided, in his words, "the risk it could infer some sort of benefit or favour and so my office paid for it".

The ride did not go in the register but it has been noted by Ministerial Services.

I was able to obtain it under the Official Information Act although the initial release did not include the receipt showing it was from the Vela Brothers. I had to ask for that separately.

Key was opening the Mt Pirongia leg of the Te Araroa walkway. There are some details here.

The Velas are listed under "funding and help in kind".

Key told me the pilot offered to take him to Auckland, rather than Hamilton - "the pilot said to me it was about equal distance either way".

Mt Pirongia is actually to the South-West of Hamilton - about 30 kilometres as the helicopter flies.

Mt Pirongia is about 130km from Auckland. You would fly past Hamilton.

And then it's likely the pilot would have had to get the helicopter back down to the Vela's base at Pencarrow Stud near Cambridge.

And for the record, the helicopter is a blue Eurocopter EC 130 B4. It's got a personalised registration IPV painted in large letters on the side – it’s probably no coincidence that PV is Peter and Philip Vela's initials

Labour and the Greens have been attacking Key over the helicopter issue. Labour's been calling him "Chopper Key".

The reality is Key is not the first politician to enjoy a helicopter ride and he won't be the last.

So I can't help but wonder what the "urgent meetings" about "security" were that Key needed to get back to Auckland that Friday evening on December 11 for.

I don't think most taxpayers have a problem with Key using the Air Force choppers if he needs to get somewhere quickly - like Pike River.

But other than that, the brand new Beamers can't be too bad for a ride - especially the one with the $990 seat warmer.

Does all this amount to corruption?  Thats up to the reader.

The Vela brothers. and Prime Minister, John Key...

Acknowledgements: TV3 News - Patrick Gower - Campbell Live


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