Clinton pal Bing paid for jet to retrieve reporters

LOS ANGELES Thu Aug 6, 2009 6:01am IST

Freed U.S. journalist Euna Lee (L) is embraced by her daughter Hana Saldate and former U.S. President Bill Clinton after arriving with fellow freed U.S. journalist Laura Ling from North Korea in Burbank, California August 5, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Freed U.S. journalist Euna Lee (L) is embraced by her daughter Hana Saldate and former U.S. President Bill Clinton after arriving with fellow freed U.S. journalist Laura Ling from North Korea in Burbank, California August 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When billionaire Steve Bing heard his friend Bill Clinton was embarking on a mission to free U.S. journalists in North Korea, Bing offered his jet -- a personal favor that could cost $200,000.

Avjet Corp, the charter company that operates and manages Bing's Boeing business jet, was alerted on Friday to prepare to fly to North Korea, said Andrew Bradley, senior vice president of the Burbank, Calif.-based company.

"He's a personal friend and supporter of Mr. Clinton and when the need arose, he graciously offered his aircraft to be part of this historic event," Bradley told Reuters on Wednesday.

Former President Clinton returned with the American journalists Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, on Wednesday. They arrived at Burbank's airport at dawn to an emotional homecoming after being freed from custody in Communist North Korea where they faced possibly serving 12 years of hard labor.

The trip required extensive coordination with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Air Force because U.S. aircraft are restricted from flying into North Korea, Bradley said.

By early Saturday morning, the charter company had obtained a letter of authorization from the State Department. Before landing in North Korea, the jet had to stop at U.S. Air Force bases in Alaska and Japan.

Bing will pick up the tab of the round-trip, 25-hour flight -- which at $6,000 per hour will cost at least $150,000, Bradley said. The cost could easily reach $200,000 with incidentals like food, satellite phones and landing fees, he added.

A real estate scion and movie producer billionaire, Bing pitched in more than $40 million in support of a California referendum turned back by voters in 2006 that would have placed a tax on oil production to fund green energy projects.

Heir to a New York fortune, Bing has been a long-time supporter of the Democratic Party.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall)

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