By R. Jeffrey Smith and Derek Willis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 5, 2005
When House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) left Washington last August to attend a friend's funeral in his home state and give a political speech in Ohio, he didn't wait in long security lines for a nonstop commercial flight.
Instead, he hopped aboard a waiting private jet at Dulles International Airport that belongs to the corporation that owns Cracker Barrel stores -- just one of about 30 companies with legislative interests before Congress that have provided this service to Blunt.
Blunt is not alone in enjoying frequent corporate jet travel. He and 11 other current or former House and Senate leaders -- each with exceptional power to determine the fate of legislation and regulation -- flew on corporate-owned jets at least 360 times from January 2001 to December 2004, according to a review of records by The Washington Post.
Blunt and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) are the top two users of such jets among the current leadership, together accounting for at least 140 trips during the past two election cycles -- an average of one flight every 10 days. They are followed by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who used corporate jets for at least 38, 15, and seven flights, respectively.
The use of these jets remains one of the last corporate-financed perquisites of elected office allowed under congressional ethics rules, which permit lawmakers to fly on them to fundraisers and other events despite a welter of laws meant to restrain the influence of corporations in politics.
No limits exist on the frequency of such corporate flights, even though lawmakers have an annual taxpayer-financed allowance to cover the cost of flying commercial airlines on official business.
DeLay, whose travel with lobbyists has come under particular scrutiny in the past two months, has repeatedly said that he is being unfairly singled out for practices that are common on Capitol Hill. The Post examination of travel records for House and Senate leaders makes clear that all 12 have taken at least one corporate-financed flight.
The records show that flights were provided by some of Washington's largest corporate interests, including tobacco, telecommunications, business consulting, securities, air transport, insurance, pharmaceutical, railroad and food companies. Officials at some of these firms said that they granted requests for flights in the hope of currying favor with the leaders, that lobbyists were typically onboard their flights, and that they used the opportunity to press the interests of the aircrafts' owners.Travel Is at a Discount
Although lawmakers must make some form of reimbursement for each flight, the payments are always a fraction of the actual cost and do not come from the lawmakers' pockets. Instead, they come from campaign funds contributed by corporate-run political action committees and other donors, including donations that in some cases nearly match the amount of the reimbursements.
A trip last year by Frist is illustrative: The Schering-Plough drug firm's political action committee gave the Senate Republican leader's political action committee $5,000 in mid-October. Frist's leadership committee paid Schering-Plough $3,204 on Oct. 27 to take the senator's staff members on a flight that he also took.
The company declined to say how much the flight cost. A spokesman for Frist said the company's jet took him from Washington to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he attended two fundraising events, and then to Nashville and Indianapolis before returning him to Washington.
Frist, who owns a share of a private jet, ranks fourth out of the eight members of the current congressional leadership in the number of corporate flights taken. Linus Catignani, who handles fundraising for Frist's political action committee, said all the trips were in compliance with federal election rules.
Three other current or former House and Senate leaders -- Blunt, Reid and former Senate minority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) -- also took in more money in campaign contributions from individual corporate political committees than they paid those companies for the use of their jets during the period studied.
Spokesmen for leaders in both parties said the jets are necessary to meet the lawmakers' busy schedules or quickly reach destinations not directly served by commercial airlines.
Arranging charter flights for such frequent travel would be too expensive, they said; they added that access to comfortable private jets had no influence on how the lawmakers voted on legislation relating to the companies.
But Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, said the frequency of corporate plane travel shows that "members of Congress need to have their wings clipped." He said the flights amount to a private subsidy not fully reflected in public filings, one he contends is too easily exchanged for legislative favors.
"All such travel should be banned," he said.
Under House rules, if a corporate jet is scheduled to fly the route anyway and the lawmaker joins the flight, he or she must pay the equivalent first-class airfare. If the flight is arranged especially for the lawmaker, then he or she must reimburse the corporation for the full cost of the flight -- an amount that could easily exceed $10,000 for even the briefest of flights.
Senate rules differ. They call for payment of first-class rates if the route has regular commercial service, and full reimbursement if no scheduled service exists.
The House rules have been routinely abused by the leadership, according to travel records that show that virtually none of the reimbursements matched the actual cost of the unscheduled flights. A lawyer for one of the companies that provided the jets to House members, who declined to be identified because his client would not allow it, called the House rule "a trap for the unwary" because so few lawmakers understand or heed it.
On many occasions, the leaders appeared to be using the jets as a convenient way to meet constituents or reach fundraisers. Two-thirds of the flights occurred on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, when many House members go home. The number of flights spiked in 2002, an election year when Republicans were trying to regain a majority in the Senate and expand their majority in the House.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to take advantage of corporate jets and disclose less information about where they flew, the records show. Republican leaders took 265 flights since 2001, while Democratic leaders took 95.
[Separately, the National Republican Congressional Committee paid -- at a heavily discounted rate -- for at least 269 additional corporate flights for senior lawmakers, according to The Post's tally. But the committee would not disclose who flew or where they went. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paid at a discount for 50 flights. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the current House minority leader, flew on nine of those flights, and then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was aboard most of the others, committee spokesman Bill Burton said.]Disclosure Limited
Assembling a full picture of the flights by House and Senate leaders is complicated by limited disclosure requirements. Key data are either kept secret by the companies or the lawmakers, or expressed in forms that are difficult for the public to retrieve. The Post's data were derived from a mixture of paper and electronically available filings by House and Senate leaders and their political action committees, plus a separate compilation of House political party-related spending.
Statistics for political party campaign committees that support Senate candidates and pay for the use of corporate jets by senior lawmakers are not electronically available, so some flights are not counted here.
In each of the filings, lawmakers are required to disclose only that their campaign committees reimbursed the companies that provided the planes, and to show the dates and amounts of the checks. They do not have to say where they went, what they did, or explain their decision not to take a commercial flight.
Only two of the 12 current and former congressional leaders contacted by The Post -- Reid and Pelosi -- provided the information.
Reid's travel was mostly between Washington and his home state of Nevada or from one city to another in that state. His spokesman said he used the jets for such purposes as meeting with contributors, attending a funeral, presiding at a groundbreaking ceremony, or simply to go home.
Pelosi's spokeswoman said the sole corporate flight reimbursed by one of the lawmaker's campaign committees was aboard a plane owned by Ullico Inc., a union life insurance and investment planning company. It carried her from Hartford, Conn., to her home district of San Francisco on April 4, 2002.
Spokesmen for the other current or former leaders studied -- Blunt, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), DeLay, Daschle, former Senate minority whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), Frist, Hastert, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) -- either did not respond or declined to disclose details for all their flights or explain how they had been arranged. An aide to Gephardt said he no longer has the trip records.
Many of the companies involved similarly declined to provide any information about the flights. But FedEx, BellSouth Corp., and CBRL Inc., the holding company for Cracker Barrel stores, said House and Senate leaders had solicited the flights. They said they granted the requests in the expectation that doing so would either improve relations with the leaders or directly curry legislative favor.
BellSouth, which made its aircraft available to senior House and Senate members at least 31 times from 2001 to 2004, approves requests from "people who are friendly to us" and "important to us," spokesman Bill McCloskey said. "They could be in a position to help or hinder legislative action that might be beneficial" or damaging to the firm.
BellSouth, with 62,636 employees, is interested in many matters that come before Congress, including free trade issues, communications regulations and workplace rules. McCloskey said most of the lawmakers flew aboard one of the company's seven or 11-passenger Cessna Excel, Hawker and Falcon jets.
He said he was not aware of a single flight on which the company did not have a lobbyist. Most of the leaders flown by BellSouth were Republicans, and Blunt was aboard at least 10 of the flights, according to the company and The Post's tally.
FedEx, which used its fleet of six Learjets and Challengers to fly congressional leaders 21 times to their chosen destinations, considers the practice "part of the cost of doing business," spokeswoman Kristin Krause said. Lobbyists for the company use each flight as "an opportunity to meet members," she said. Political party committee records indicate the company flew unidentified senior Republicans 11 more times and Democrats once.
FedEx is interested in numerous customs, aircraft and regulatory issues, and Krause said the company is sometimes willing to fly one of its aircraft to Washington when someone from a lawmaker's staff "calls and asks."
"I don't think they'd want us telling you where they flew the airplanes," she said.
UST Inc., which makes popular brands of chewing tobacco and some wines, flew senior lawmakers from both parties on an estimated 75 flights during the period studied, based on both the individual and political party committee records. Mike Bazinet, a UST spokesman, said the company's lobbying office in Washington decides whether to provide a plane, but declined to say where the lawmakers were flown or what they did when they arrived.
The company's beneficiaries included Lott, who took 12 UST flights from 2001 to 2002; Nickles, who took seven flights from 2002 to 2003; DeLay, who took six; Reid, who took four; and Blunt, who took two.Firms Gain Lawmaker Support
In some instances, the leaders vigorously backed the positions of the companies that flew them in and out of Washington. Lott, Nickles, Blunt and DeLay opposed legislation that would have permitted the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco, as does UST, for example.
DeLay's political action committee partly reimbursed Koch Industries last Dec. 12 for the lawmaker's flight to an unspecified destination. Koch is a major manufacturer of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), a chemical that has contaminated water supplies nationwide. DeLay has been a major supporter of a bill that would grant Koch and other chemical firms from Texas immunity from legal liability for the contamination.
The Huntsman Corp., another major MTBE manufacturer, provided two flights to Daschle and five to Reid, but both opposed the liability exemption. Two other companies that have been sued over MTBE contamination have provided three other flights to senior Republicans, according to official records.
Even for some less well-known companies, providing private jet service to senior lawmakers is typically part of a wider lobbying campaign waged on specific legislative and regulatory issues.
Houston-based Reliant Energy Inc., for example, has flown DeLay on its corporate jet six times in the past six years; he is the only member of the congressional leadership for whom it has provided this service. The company, one of the nation's largest independent producers of electricity, is also the sixth-largest lifetime contributor to DeLay's affiliated political campaign committees, providing $214,000 since 1995.
Reliant has been embroiled in conflicts with state and federal regulators for years. In 2000, the managers of a wholly owned subsidiary allegedly chose to shut down electric power generating capacity during the California energy crisis, according to transcripts of conversations among the subsidiary's employees in federal regulatory files.
The episode ultimately led to the April 2004 indictment of the subsidiary, Reliant Energy Services Inc., and four of its officers from Texas on charges of commodities manipulation and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Since then, the firm has paid fines of as much as $82.6 million for its actions, without admitting guilt. The criminal case is pending.
In 2001, when DeLay flew aboard a Reliant jet once and an aide took a separate Reliant flight, the company was lobbying heavily against a move by both Republicans and Democrats in California to get regulators to impose an emergency limit on the cost of electricity. Its lobbying declarations for the first six months of that year listed expenditures of $870,000 for that issue and others. The company also financed a series of ads attacking California's Gov. Gray Davis, a backer of the plan.
On June 18, 2001, as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was preparing to accept the idea, DeLay wrote to the commission urging that it not do so. "Measures like price caps would plunge California deeper into its electricity supply crisis," he wrote. "I must reiterate my concern that the Commission not accede to any price mitigation proposal."
Dan Allen, DeLay's spokesman, said the majority leader uses corporate jets because he "travels to campaign events for many of his colleagues as well as to events for his own fundraising committees." He added: "Majority Leader DeLay cast his votes based on the merits of each piece of legislation."
Reliant spokeswoman Pat Hammond said the company no longer owns a jet but declined to provide any information about the "dates or business purpose" of flights it provided to DeLay.
Staff reporter James V. Grimaldi, research editor Lucy Shackelford and The Washington Post news research staff contributed to this report.