Joe Manchin Wanted to Buy a $3 Million Helicopter With Money Earmarked for Tackling Opioid Crisis: Report

As West Virginia governor in 2007, now-Senator Joe Manchin wanted to use $3 million of a $44 million settlement from Purdue Pharma, maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, to purchase a "governor's helicopter."

The request was marked as a "red flag" by West Virginia's Division of Criminal Justice Services, according to memos recently obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

"We have done some preliminary research into the feasibility of the funding use, but it requires more legal knowledge than I have to determine usage," said Joseph Thornton, Manchin's cabinet secretary for the Department of Military and Affairs Public Safety.

He included a list of possible agencies, projects and items that Manchin's administration requested some of the money be used for, aside from funding requests made by the West Virginia State Police.

Then-Governor Manchin, according to emails exchanged between Thornton and the director of the state's criminal justice programs Norbert Federspiel, personally requested that a "governor's helicopter" be purchased for $3 million.

"Governor wants settlement funding dedicated to purchase a new helicopter," Thornton wrote of Manchin's request. "This request needs not only to determine the ability to fund, but under what circumstances would a helicopter be allowed under the stipulations of the settlement. Call me if you have questions or this doesn't make sense."

Federspiel, along with the help of Deanna Eder at the U.S. attorneys' office, responded with "observations" and a "joint analysis" of the governor's requests.

Below the helicopter request, the two officials wrote the following: "RED Flag!: First off, it cannot be a Governor's Helicopter. If it is used predominantly by State Police for law enforcement activities, it is probably justifiable. Assurances and documentation of usage for law enforcement purposes would be a must. I don't know what percentage of use the Governor could make of such a thing, but at very least I'm sure that WVSP [West Virginia State Police] would need to use it the majority of time in order to fly. State police would have to document their need for the bird."

The two concluded that Manchin should "beware of public perception and awareness."

The helicopter purchase ultimately never came to fruition.

Jonathan Kott, Manchin's senate spokesperson, declined to comment and referred Newsweek to the senator's re-election campaign. Grant Herring, a spokesperson for the campaign, told Newsweek on Friday that the notion that Manchin requested the helicopter for his own personal use was "political BS."

"All state agencies use the state's aircraft, including the state police and DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]," Herring said.

Thornton, who made the original request for Manchin that was red-flagged by Federspiel, has since taken over Federspiel's position as director of the state's criminal justice programs. Thornton did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

In 2007, the same year Manchin made the request for the helicopter, West Virginia's opioid overdose death rate per 100,000 people was roughly double the U.S. average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of 2016, that number had more than doubled to become the state with the highest drug overdose death rate in the country. Opioids were detected in 6,001 drug overdose deaths in the state from 2001 through 2015, according to West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources.

In his 2008 state of the state address, Manchin mentioned the multimillion-dollar settlement, saying West Virginia "must continue our war on illegal drugs...for the future health of all of our citizens."

"In the past, we have committed extra money to this effort, but this year, due to the hard work of our State Police as part of an investigation led by federal prosecutors, we will be receiving over $44 million to help combat our state's drug problem," Manchin said. "And I believe that within the spending guidelines and requirements given to us by the federal government, we can make tremendous strides toward winning our drug war once and for all."