The U.S. House ethics committee has issued a letter that says it is permissible for Rep. Chellie Pingree to fly on a private jet owned by her fiance.

Pingree, a first-term Democrat from North Haven who is running for re-election in Maine’s 1st Congressional District, has drawn 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. She asked the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last week for an opinion on whether such travel is permitted.

On Monday afternoon, Pingree’s office released an official response from the committee, signed by the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, its ranking Republican.

“As detailed more fully below, such flights are permissible under House rules,” reads the letter.

The letter says transportation qualifies as a gift, that House members may accept gifts from family members, that a fiance is treated as a relative, and that the gift rule imposes no limit on the dollar value or frequency of gifts from relatives.

Pingree sought the written opinion Friday after a blogger posted a report about the flights, linking them to her past statements.

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.”

Late last week, Pingree said she had consulted House ethics rules before flying on Sussman’s jet, and believed she had done nothing wrong.

Pingree said she believed the online report was politically motivated. The blog, MaineWatchdog.org, is 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 failed presidential bid.

Sussman’s jet is owned by Magic Carpet Enterprises LLC. His lawyer, Jeffrey A. Schantz of Rye Brook, N.Y., said the company was set up to protect Sussman from liability issues, and that Sussman is its sole owner.

The company has no ties to Paloma Partners, the hedge firm Sussman founded, or any other company, Schantz wrote in an e-mail to MaineToday Media.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, it is common practice for people to own assets such as this in (a) limited liability vehicle for liability purposes,” Schantz wrote in the e-mail.

Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the Maine Republican Victory Campaign, questioned Monday night whether the plane should be considered privately owned.

“If Pingree did not stipulate the accurate ownership of the plane, this ruling is without basis and should be disregarded,” Dutson wrote in an e-mail.

Pingree said Saturday that she and Sussman became engaged after the 2008 election, but kept the news private. She took office in January 2009.

Campaign spokesman Willy Ritch initially said last week that the couple became engaged in May 2009. But he said Monday that he had spoken in error, that he had learned of the engagement at that time.

“I clearly got that wrong, when they got engaged,” Ritch said Monday.

Tara Malloy, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group based in Washington that promotes government ethics and campaign finance laws, said the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 tightened restrictions on travel, gifts and lobbying activity.

“Mostly with the thought that (corporate jets) are connected with lobbying and the deep-pocketed special interests,” Malloy said. “What it looks like here is that Rep. Pingree is receiving the flights as a gift, so for that situation the gift rule applies.”

Malloy said Pingree would not have needed prior approval for flying aboard Sussman’s jet.

“I think you’re pretty much in the clear if you’re accepting private jet travel from a family member,” Malloy said.

Travel restrictions are different for House and Senate members. Malloy mentioned other laws that may come into play, if the purpose of the flight was to attend a campaign function.

“I believe, under campaign finance laws, the family-member exception is not enough,” Malloy said. “If it’s used for campaign purposes, it’s still problematic. Where you draw the lines exactly would be a matter up to the ethics committee.”

Flight logs obtained by MaineToday Media through Flightaware.com, an online tracking service, show the jet has traveled frequently between Washington and Maine in the past month, with at least 10 stops in Maine. The logs do not give a passenger list for each trip.

Sussman owns homes in Deer Isle and North Haven, and Pingree said he has been a Maine resident since 2009.

Information from Flightaware.com had been available for a fee as recently as Thursday, but was removed at the request of the jet’s owner, according to the website.

Ritch said Saturday that he didn’t know why Sussman might have made that request.

An independent poll conducted earlier this month by the Portland firm Critical Insights for MaineToday Media showed Pingree with a lead of 24 percentage points over Republican challenger Dean Scontras of Eliot — 53 percent to 29 percent, with 17 percent of 1st District voters undecided.

“I’ve been campaigning all day in Windham,” Scontras said Monday evening, “and almost everybody I met with was concerned with the hypocrisy of it. There’s the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ mentality. And the other thing, this is somebody who has argued for cap-and-trade, so there’s an obvious CO² (carbon dioxide) component to it. From an environmental perspective, this is a 19-seat jet. That’s a lot of CO².”

At a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell on Sunday night at Southern Maine Community College, Pingree did not mention the issue. She received a warm reception from a partisan crowd eager to hear from former President Bill Clinton.

“It’s quite a week here in Maine when we have a visit from both Lady Gaga and President Clinton,” said Pingree, who proceeded to compare and contrast the pair. “Lady Gaga had a much bigger entourage, she had a very cool bus and exceptionally stylish shoes.”

On the other hand, Pingree said, “President Clinton does have the distinction of presiding over record-low unemployment rates, balanced budgets and one of the biggest peacetime economic expansions in our nation’s history.”

She also spoke of progress in reforming health care, of clamping down on hidden fees by credit card companies, and of more loan money made available to small businesses.

“But we still have a long way to go,” she said. “This is not an election year to take for granted.”

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: gjordan@pressherald.com