TVA’s Extravagant Executive Toys at Your Expense

Stephen Smith | February 13, 2018 | Energy Policy, Tennessee, Utilities

Just when you thought the excessive executive compensation was bad, it appears that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s CEO Bill Johnson, already the highest paid federal employee in the entire country taking home over $6.5 million dollars in total compensation in 2017, spent the last few years on a spending spree buying new corporate jets, airplanes, and a luxury helicopter. Over the past two and a half years it looks like the grand total of the spending spree comes in at about $40,000,000.

TVA 2015 Cessna Citation XLS

What We Uncovered

The aircraft list can be found at the FAA registry here by typing in Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the NAME section. The spending spree has been funded by the people of the Tennessee Valley through their hard earned dollars that we send each month to our local power companies when we pay our electric bills. These monthly payments are enabling Johnson and other executives at TVA to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous as corporate jet setters while we pick up the tab!

Expensive Toys

The four purchases that really caught our attention have been secured since 2015.  They include two Cessna Citation Excel jets with the N-Numbers (also know as tail numbers visible at the rear of the plane) N561PG and N560GJ. These are sweet rides costing about $13 million each and have operational costs of about $1,800-$2,000 an hour. Why does TVA suddenly need two new corporate jets? Maybe to ensure that TVA CEO Bill Johnson and TVA CFO John Thomas (also a millionaire with a 2017 compensation of more than $2.5 million) arrive in style to their closed door meetings with local power companies?

TVA 2017 Cessna Citation XLS

TVA has flown a Beechcraft King Air for years, but it seems that Johnson wanted to upgrade that too in 2015 with the purchase of N365PT, a King Air B300, which is an estimated $8 million dollar purchase. The two corporate jets (2015 and 2017 models) and the 2015 turbo-prop King Air are all based in hanger building 9016 at McGhee Tyson airport in Knoxville, TN.

Mercedes Benz Style Helicopter 

The TVA millionaire jet setters didn’t just stop at fancy jets, they also decided there was a need for a luxury helicopter, and boy did Johnson score a nice one.  The Mercedes Benz style EC145 helicopter N-number N482AE will get you to the office in real style. To be clear, several of TVA’s helicopters appear to be necessary for transmission work, and these can be found on this FAA list, but the approximately $7 million dollar luxury helicopter – with the $1.5 million “Mercedes Benz style” interior which includes fine hard wood paneling and floors – is not likely to be seen inspecting transmission lines any time soon. A former TVA employee was “shocked” when he learned about the hardwood floors in a TVA helicopter. Here’s a description of the luxury helicopter from the manufacturer:

The helicopter’s interior design, which was created in the new Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in Como, Italy, was inspired by the automaker’s luxury-class saloons and offers top-shelf materials, wood paneling and spacious multi-function boxes with various equipment options.”

TVA’s luxury helicopter with “hardwood” floors

This same helicopter (remember, each tail number is unique) was spotted shuttling billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones around in 2014. Not to be outdone, it appears Bill Johnson snatched it up in 2015. Do TVA executives need to be riding around in a Mercedes Benz style helicopter with hardwood floors when they negotiate a sweetheart deal with big industrial customers at the expense of ratepayers? Maybe I am missing something, but my read of the TVA Act clearly states that the purpose of TVA is to protect the residential customers, not to buy flashy toys for millionaire executives and make backroom deals with private industry. This is the very definition of corruption of the TVA mission and is “tone deaf” to the needs of our region when places like Memphis have the highest energy burdens of any city in the country. The $40 million spent on jets and a luxury helicopter could have gone a long way to helping people in need.

Billionaire Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones with the luxury helicopter in 2014

There Needs to be an Investigation

I have no doubt that the founders of TVA are rolling in their graves to see this hijacking of TVA’s mission. These expensive executive toys do not meet the TVA motto “For the People of the United States of America” and it looks more like “For fat cat bureaucrats living high on the hog at the expense of electric ratepayers.” Serious questions need to be asked: Where is the independent oversight? Who approved these purchases? Has the TVA Board known about these purchases? Have they too been flying around at ratepayers’ expense in the fancy jets and helicopters? What is the justification for this outlandish spending even while claiming to be cutting costs and “protecting ratepayers”? Where does TVA’s Inspector General stand on these purchases? Where is Congressional oversight? We have just submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to TVA on the purchase prices and operation of these aircraft. We want to know who is flying where and whether there have also been vacations and special junket trips.

TVA’s luxury “Mercedes Benz style” helicopter in TVA’s hanger in Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Part of a Developing Trend

In the past few months we have learned that TVA has been shifting rates off the big industrial customers while increasing base rates on residential and small business customers. We have also learned that TVA and the many Local Power Companies are increasing fees on your bill saying they need more money in mandatory fixed fees that you pay each month in addition to your costs for energy usage. Now TVA is proposing for the first time ever a wholesale fixed charge called a “grid access fee” that will not be based on energy usage but on TVA’s administrative fixed cost. In light of increasing executive bonuses and compensation – and now the luxury jets and helicopters –  maybe the new proposed fee should be more accurately called a “Greed Access Fee.” If you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

TAKE ACTION TODAY – Click HERE to sign a petition demanding answers from the TVA Board and CEO Bill Johnson.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience effecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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