Nevada governor to ask Fossett’s widow to help pay for search
CARSON CITY – Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons intends to ask the widow of missing multimillionaire Steve Fossett to help pay the state’s $687,000 tab in the unsuccessful search for the famed adventurer last fall, a spokesman said Thursday.
Ben Kieckhefer, Gibbons’ press secretary, downplayed a newspaper report that the first-term Republican governor planned to send Fossett’s family a bill.
“We are going to request that they help offset some of these expenses, considering the scope of the search, the overall cost as well as our ongoing budget difficulties,” Kieckhefer told The Associated Press.
Kieckhefer said any assistance from the Fossett family would be voluntary.
“We hope that the family would be willing to make it, but obviously it would be entirely up to them,” Kieckhefer said.
Fossett, 63, took off in a small plane Sept. 3 from a ranch south of Yerington on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight. The self-made business tycoon gained worldwide fame attempting to set records in high-tech balloons, gliders and jets. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon.
During a monthlong search, ground crews, the Nevada National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol scoured a 20,000 square-mile area but turned up no sign of Fossett or his plane.
He had taken off from Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, and the hotel magnate later voluntarily sent the state a check for $200,000 to cover some of the search costs.
Kieckhefer said with Hilton’s contribution, the state is hoping the Fossett family would help make up the $487,000 difference.
Since January, Gibbons has cut state spending to deal with a budget shortfall projected to top $900 million by mid-2009.
Fossett was declared legally dead Feb. 15 by an Illinois judge. In making that determination, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffery Malak said Fossett left a “vast” eight-figure estate.
Michael LoVallo of Chicago, a lawyer for Fossett’s widow, Peggy, was out of town and not available for comment, his voice-mail message said.
Earlier this week, State Emergency Management Director Frank Siracusa said state and local government search-and-rescue workers have a long tradition of not charging when they hunt for missing persons.
“We do not charge the rich or the poor,” Siracusa said. “There is no precedent where government will go after people for costs just because they have money to pay for it. You get lost, and we look for you. It is a service your taxpayer dollars pay for.”
Kieckhefer denied a bill was being prepared.
“It will probably be in the form of a letter,” he said, adding the governor plans to outline steps the state took, the costs and explain its ongoing budget deficient.
Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, first questioned at an April 10 meeting of the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee why the state did not bill the Fossett family for its search costs, because Nevada has no money to spare.
Arberry said Thursday that he was glad to hear steps were being taken to try to recoup some of the costs.
“I know it’s a time of loss and you want to be sympathetic but at the same time, since we are having such a big shortfall we are trying to scrape wherever we can to come up with some money,” he said.