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Wed, Oct 26, 2005

Senate Committee Looks Into MN Plane Deal

Some Cry Foul, Others Say Bonanza Purchase Unrelated To Cirrus

It's all a misunderstanding, said Minnesota Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau regarding questions raised about the state's decision to go with a new Beechcraft Bonanza to replace an older aircraft in its fleet, instead of an airplane built by Duluth-based Cirrus Design.

"It was never a replacement," Molnau -- who is also Minnesota's Commissioner of Transportation -- told the state Senate Transportation Committee Monday. Instead, Molnau insisted the agency was looking at a Cirrus SR22 as simply "an addition to the fleet," not as a replacement for a 27-year-old utility aircraft.

"At this time, adding to the fleet was not part of the package," she said.

Molnau added the Cirrus did not have the cargo capacity to fill the role, which includes flying equipment and personnel to small airports throughout the state. "These are the working planes that haul equipment," she said. "They haul markers for the runways. They haul a lot of folks and information."

Despite MN's assertions that the Bonanza can haul more than an SR22 (which Cirrus refutes, responding that the SR22 has more useful load), Cirrus execs maintain the state Department of Transportation changed the specs of the initial deal. A Cirrus spokesperson notes that the state changed the bid's specs (Spec 1.6) to show favor to the Beechcraft by declaring that the aircraft had to have no specified service life.

"We were written out of the bid intentionally," Cirrus VP William King told the Associated Press. "The system's broke and we hope somebody starts paying attention to it."

King says the company had been led to believe they had a shot at the replacement contract and spent months preparing a bid, even flying a demo SR22 to St. Paul in order to give state DOT staff the chance to inspect the plane and take flights in it.

The entire deal was "terribly compromised," said King.

State auditors are looking into the deal, but haven't determined yet if a full investigation is warranted. Minnesota will need to shell out about $633,000 for the new Bonanza, according to media reports -- and that's after trading in one of the state's current 1978 Bonanzas. The Cirrus enjoys an almost $200,000 price advantage.

While the hearing produced no evidence of corruption or wrongdoing, several legislators continued to raise suspicions about the purchase, conducted under the "single source" bid structure allowed by state law. 

"I'm going to say the bid's rigged. As a legislator I feel very free to utter my opinion and I will continue to do so," said Sen. Wes Skoglund. The senator was quoted in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper.

Molnau maintains the state made the right choice for its needs. "The smaller [Cirrus], while it's a wonderful aircraft, did not have the same capacity" as the Beech, she said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Murphy was a bit more candid on the matter. "They wanted to replace the old Beechcraft with the new Beechcraft," he said at the completion of the hearing. "I don't know what else we can do. The plane is bought."



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