The Democratic chair and ranking Republican of the House ethics committee issued a letter this afternoon that confirmed the contention of Rep. Chellie Pingree that she broke no rules by traveling on the private jet of her fiancé.
Pingree, a first-term Democrat from North Haven who is running for re-election in Maine’s 1st District, drew criticism from Republicans for traveling between Maine and Washington D.C. aboard a 2007 Dassault Falcon 2000EX jet owned by S. Donald Sussman, a wealthy Wall Street financier.
Four years ago, as head of the campaign-finance reform group Common Cause, Pingree spoke out against the use of corporate jets by members of Congress in the wake of a corruption scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several prominent Republicans.
In written testimony before Congress, Pingree said “lobbyists are not the problem, the jets are” and “public perception is critical.”
Although Sussman’s jet is owned by Magic Carpet Enterprises LLC, his lawyer – Jeffrey A. Schantz of Rye Brook, N.Y. – said that company exists to protect Sussman from liability. The company is not owned or operated by Paloma Partners or any other company, Schantz wrote by e-mail to MaineToday Media. Sussman is the founder of Paloma Partners, a hedge fund based in Greenwich, Conn.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree fired back Sunday evening at allegations she improperly used billionaire Wall Street financier S. Donald Sussman’s private jet for travel, asserting she’s done nothing wrong and that the criticism is politically motivated.
Pingree, a Democrat running for re-election in Maine’s 1st Congressional District, responded publicly for the first time to charges that she traveled on the 2007 Dassault Falcon 2000EX jet owned by Sussman, to whom Pingree said she is engaged.
Pingree was criticized by Republicans for traveling on Sussman’s jet because she had spoken out in the past against members of Congress flying on corporate jets, when she was head of Common Cause, a campaign-finance reform group.
“It seems these are politically motivated attacks on my personal life. For the three years I’ve been dating Donald, every opponent I’ve had has tried to make him an issue,” Pingree said in an interview. “We’ve had people who skulk around, who follow us home at night and knock on our door.
“It seems to me that’s crossing a line.”
Pingree said she and Sussman became engaged after the 2008 election, but kept the news private.
“We’re both tight, private people and we anticipate we’ll get married early next year,” she said. “Prior to this, it was our own private information.”
The news of the jet travel was broken last week by MaineWatchdog, a blog funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose advisory council includes conservative journalists. Jason Stverak, listed as president of the organization, served for six years as executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party and worked on Republican Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid.
Pingree said she checked to make sure that taking flights on Sussman’s jet was permissible.
“I read the ethics manual as soon as I was elected to office — it was clear that I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” she said.
On Saturday, Pingree’s spokesman, Willy Ritch, released a statement from a congressional ethics lawyer clearing Pingree of any conflict. The written opinion by Carol E. Dixon, counsel to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, advised Pingree that “a member is clearly permitted to accept such travel under the House gift rule.”
Pingree said she generally flies commercial between Washington, D.C., and Portland.
“On the rare occasions when he and I are going to the same place, then I go home with him,” Pingree said. “We’re both busy people, and it doesn’t happen that often.”
A source who knows Pingree but asked not to be identified said he has seen the congresswoman on “a couple of” flights from Washington to Maine.
Spokesmen for Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins said the senators fly home on most weekends, using commercial airlines. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s office couldn’t be reached for comment.
“Sen. Collins sees Olympia and Mike often,” Collins spokesman Kevin Kelly said.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, Pingree’s predecessor, said he came home to Portland just about every weekend, flying commercial. “In 12 years, I didn’t stay down there six times,” Allen said.
Pingree said the flights on Sussman’s jet didn’t cost taxpayers any money. And, Pingree said, she planned to continue flying on the jet. “There’s nothing wrong with it and I can’t imagine anything will change,” she said.
Allen said that if a House ethics lawyer had cleared Pingree, this entire imbroglio was a non-issue. It was a clear case of politicking, Allen said.
“What this group is doing is they don’t want to be talking about health care, about tax cuts for the middle class, about the major differences between Chellie Pingree and Dean Scontras,” he said. “Raising this issue is a complete red herring, an effort to distract from the profound differences between them on how to serve the people of Maine.”
Scontras, Pingree’s Republican rival, said Sunday that the congresswoman’s earlier remarks about using corporate jets made this an issue.
“Her remarks in 2006 were very clear about members of Congress and traveling on corporate jets,” Scontras said. “I think it’s actually accentuated in the sense that Mainers are going through a hard time. It’s certainly the perception of that sort of lifestyle raises some questions.”
Scontras said Pingree’s travel on the jet and her relationship with Sussman are of interest to the public because she has been critical of Wall Street.
“Everybody wants to respect everybody’s personal relationships, but there’s definitely a very clear nexus of the influence of Washington, D.C., money and its influence in Maine,” Scontras said.
Scontras noted that Sussman’s Paloma Partners has received $200 million in financial bailout money from the U.S. government.
Paloma was a counterparty to insurance giant AIG when AIG received a $170 billion bailout package. About $108 billion went to counterparties, including Paloma, according to 2009 reports in BusinessWeek.
Sussman has been a Maine resident since 2009, Pingree said. He has owned a home in Deer Isle since 1992.
“Upon meeting me, he’s graciously moved into the 1st Congressional District,” Pingree said. “He considers that home.”
On Sunday, the Maine Republican Party issued a release criticizing Pingree, citing the bailout to Paloma and saying the couple lead a “shocking, opulent lifestyle.”
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