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TVA bought a Cessna Citation Excel jet in 2015 for $11.2 million and a similar jet in 2017 for $10.7 million. The utility also recently spent $6.95 million for a Mercedes Benz style EC145 helicopter, previously used by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Move over, members of Donald J. Trump's swamp cabinet.

The Tennessee Valley Authority top managers and board members are giving you some really tough competition for the swamp waters of the powerful elite — those living high on taxpayer dollars (or in TVA's case, monopolized ratepayer dollars.)

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It was bad enough that TVA has spent $29 million for two Cessna Citation jets and an executive helicopter previously used by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. This is the same TVA that has patted itself on the back for cutting its annual operating costs by more than $600 million — mostly in layoffs and unfilled positions over the last five years.

But there is insult to injury: TVA has frequently used its new air fleet to transport TVA's president and its board chairman back and forth to their respective homes in North Carolina and Mississippi. According to FAA flight logs, TVA's aircraft were dispatched 31 times to Raleigh, N.C., where TVA President Bill Johnson has a home, and 76 times to Oxford, Miss., where TVA Chairman Richard Howorth lives. In another instance, TVA sent its jet to Philadelphia, near where Johnson grew up, on Christmas Eve, according to a Tuesday story by Times Free Press Business Editor Dave Flessner.

TVA hasn't said what those trips cost us ratepayers. But investigators for TVA's Office of Inspector General noted in a March report on the aircraft purchases that it costs $4,542 per flight hour to operate the jets and $2,249 per flight hours to operate the turboprop. The jet uses 228 gallons of fuel per hour and the turboprop uses 122, according to the report.

TVA defends the aircraft for business use by saying that they are safer and save time. But the IG's report found that time savings for using the jets were "negligible." For a 700-mile trip to West Palm Beach, Fla. (the longest recent flight by TVA officials), the jet saved TVA less than 30 minutes when compared to the turboprop.

What's more, from July 1, 2015, through Feb. 28, 2017, TVA executives used one of its jets 129 times to fly between Chattanooga and Knoxville, saving 26 minutes over driving but spending far more money. Like, the difference between about $8,000 for a roughly one-and-a-half-hour plane ride (including drive time to and from airports) or $40 for a nearly two-hour drive.

TVA watchdogs say those trips may have violated federal travel regulations. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Knoxville-based environmental group that compiled the flight information based upon FAA records, has questioned the need for TVA to provide such personalized air travel and urged the TVA inspector general on Monday to conduct a full investigation.

"We have serious concerns about abuse of power by TVA's CEO, executive staff and board of directors and see clear signs of waste, and potential fraud," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in a letter to the inspector general. Debbie Dooley, president of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and co-founder of the National Tea Party, charged that TVA leaders are using TVA jets "like a fancy limousine service."

Remember former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — the Trump cabinet member who was fired for his inappropriate travel spending — even after he paid the government back? Well, we think it's time for TVA CEO Bill Johnson and anyone else who took personal trips on ratepayers' tabs to pay TVA back. What's more, it's time they reacquaint themselves with driving for business.

Clarification: This column has been corrected to show Tom Price is the former HHS Secretary, not Mike Price.

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