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Conflict of interest seen in Romney trip

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- With major healthcare legislation pending on Beacon Hill, Governor Mitt Romney and several aides flew out to the annual conference of the Republican Governors Association this week on a private jet provided by New York pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.

Traveling on Tuesday with Romney and his aides on the jet, which was arranged through the governors association, were two Pfizer lobbyists, Bill Smith and Andy Antrobus, and Rob Gray, a Boston-based consultant working for the company.

The trip was first reported yesterday by the Associated Press. Romney's communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, confirmed the passenger list last night.

The trip on the Pfizer jet occurred as Romney eagerly waits for a healthcare bill to emerge from the Legislature. Romney has said healthcare is his biggest priority at the State House.

Pfizer has lobbied states to add residents to the Medicaid program, the Associated Press reported. Such an initiative may end up being part of the final healthcare bill that Massachusetts lawmakers craft and Romney signs. (Pfizer supplies drugs to Medicaid.)

Traveling with the governor on the plane were Fehrnstrom, press secretary Julie Teer, chief of staff Beth Myers, political adviser Spencer Zwick, and a state trooper providing security detail.

Fehrnstrom said in an e-mail last night, ''Transportation to the conference was supplied by the RGA in full conformance with the law." Romney and his aides were flying back to Boston on commercial airlines, Fehrnstrom said.

Government watchdog groups said that even though taking a corporate jet is not illegal, it presents an appearance of a conflict of interest, particularly in the current climate, with healthcare a dominant theme. ''It gives an appearance of a conflict of interest, given the healthcare debate and the thriving biotech industry in the state," Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, told the Associated Press.

Political organizations such as the Republican Governors Association often fly party officials to their events in jets donated by corporations. The organizations are required to calculate the fair-market value of providing such trips, and they then have to report them with the Internal Revenue Service as in-kind donations.

''It's established policy -- something that the DGA [Democratic Governors Association] does, the RNC [Republican National Committee] does, and the DNC [Democratic National Committee] does," said Ben Jenkins, Republican Governors Association spokesman.

Pfizer officials did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.

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