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Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife received free perks from Delta Air Lines worth nearly $8,000 two weeks after he signed into law a tax break benefiting the company.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that the airline gave the Republican governor and his wife Diamond medallion status, making them eligible for free seat upgrades, bonus frequent flier miles, priority check-in and boarding and fee waivers. Deal got those perks after signing legislation on April 27 that gave the airline a partial exemption from the fuel sales tax, valued at $30 million.
"That was obviously a thank you for signing that bill," said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the perks extended by Delta were part of an effort to promote economic development, not a personal gift to the governor and his wife. The couple received their Diamond medallion status before departing on an economic trade mission to Europe in May.
Robinson said Deal and his wife would not use the awards for personal travel.
"Any time it will be used, it will be used for state business," he said. "They will not be doing any personal leisure travel while he is governor. They spend their vacations in Georgia."
Delta gave similar, though less valuable, gifts last year to at least 10 state leaders, according to campaign and lobbyist reports. Those politicians include Rep. Jay Roberts, the lawmaker who sponsored the tax break legislation, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.
Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said that as a Georgia-based company, the airline supports local elected leaders through in-kind contributions.
Supporters of the tax break for Delta say it was necessary to help a major employer in the state, but critics argued that the cash-strapped government could not afford it while slicing billions of dollars from its budget.
After taking office, Deal signed an executive order extending a policy set by former Gov. Sonny Perdue that generally bans state officials from accepting gifts worth more than $25 from anyone with whom they conduct state business. Robinson said that limitation does not apply to the Delta perks because they were given to promote economic development, not as a personal gift.
Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com