A state-owned Beechcraft King Air B200 undergoes maintenance. (File photo courtesy: Lansing State Journal)
LANSING, Mich. (Lansing State Journal)-- The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the state of Michigan's practice of leasing its passenger planes to officials at Michigan State University.
The federal inquiry comes less than a month after a Lansing State Journal series on the taxpayer-funded planes, which focused on how the aircraft are used and who uses them.
Officials from the FAA, the Michigan Department of Transportation and MSU confirmed a preliminary probe is under way by the federal agency's branch office in Grand Rapids. The initial review could trigger a formal investigation by the FAA.
RELATED: Read past coverage about the use of state-owned aircraft and other Watchdog coverage here at www.lsj.com.
MDOT and MSU officials said the review relates to the university's use of the state-owned planes by top athletic officials for recruiting trips.
MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said the FAA is seeking financial documents such as billing, invoices and proof of payments, including "receipt and check-stub copies from MSU."
Cranson said MDOT was first contacted by the FAA on Monday.
"MDOT aeronautics officials are happy to cooperate with the FAA," Cranson said. "The MDOT Office of Aeronautics treats MSU the same as they treat every other customer state agency."
MDOT is responsible for the state's four passenger planes and manages the flight schedule. The aircraft are available to all state employees and those who work for Michigan's 15 four-year public universities who can justify the travel costs for them for work purposes.
The State Journal reviewed five years' worth of trip logs for the planes and reported earlier this month that MSU head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo and MSU head football coach Mark Dantonio were among the most frequent fliers.
Izzo had traveled at least 55 times in the five-year period, or nearly once a month.
Dantonio had used the state planes slightly less, with at least 47 trips in five years, the State Journal found.
Flights for their recruiting trips are paid for out of MSU's athletics department budget, which is self-sufficient and does not receive taxpayer funding. The athletics department pays MDOT a per-hour fee to use the planes, officials have said, and the state planes are one of several charter options that the athletics department uses.
In all, MSU employees and guests used the state planes at least 150 times during the five-year period analyzed by the State Journal. That was third-most among any state entity, behind MDOT and the Michigan State Police.
At least two-thirds of the passengers on the MSU trips were affiliated with the university's athletics department, the State Journal found.
By comparison, academic professionals at Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula used the planes five times over the five years, and one University of Michigan administrator used a plane last fall. Neither university appears to be involved with the current FAA inquiry.
Cranson and MSU spokesman Jason Cody said they are complying with verbal requests from the FAA for documents and information.
"At this point, this is an informal investigation by the FAA Flight Standards District Office in Grand Rapids," Cranson said. "Their findings will determine whether it becomes a formal investigation by (the Office of) FAA Chief Counsel in Chicago."
Cody acknowledged the FAA is seeking "records pertaining to those flights" that involved athletic coaches and staff, but he declined to elaborate on MSU's involvement in the investigation.
Regional FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory confirmed the review of MDOT's "use of aircraft" but she declined to provide further details - such as what the probe was specifically targeting, when it began and when it might be resolved - because the FAA "does not discuss open reviews."
The State Journal has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FAA seeking records pertaining to the investigation.
Under federal open records laws, the FAA has 20 business days to provide an initial response to the request but can take longer to actually provide the requested information.