September 24, 2010

Pingree takes heat for jet use

The congresswoman rejects GOP accusations of hypocrisy after flying in on her fiance's plane.

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a past critic of lawmakers flying on private jets, was videotaped recently by a Maine political blogger arriving at the Portland International Jetport on a private jet owned by her fiance, the billionaire financier Donald Sussman.

A spokesman for Rep. Chellie Pingree says she sought advice about the flights from the House Ethics Committee upon her election to Congress in 2008.

The video and accompanying story by Stephan Burklin of the blog MaineWatchdog.org drew attacks from the Maine Republican Party, which accused her of hypocrisy.

Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said neither taxpayer nor campaign funds were spent on the flights. He also said Pingree sought advice about the flights from the House Ethics Committee upon her election to Congress in 2008.

"She went to staff at the House Ethics Committee and asked if it was appropriate for her to fly on Donald Sussman's plane, because they are partners," he said. "And they assured her that it was, that it was within the House rules and that she didn't need a written opinion. Because of the story, we're going to get one and we'll have that tomorrow and be able to release that."

Ritch maintained there was no hypocrisy between Pingree's words and actions.

"Her statements in the past about private planes have been talking about members of Congress flying with corporate lobbyists on jets owned by big corporations, not by planes that are owned by people's partners or husbands or wives or fiancees," he said.

Pingree is campaigning for re-election in Maine's 1st Congressional District against Republican Dean Scontras.

Burklin merged Pingree's recent public schedule and the jet's flight plans to conclude Pingree was using it for congressional business.

In Congress, and earlier as leader of the nonpartisan Common Cause nonprofit organization, Pingree had cited private jets as an example of how elected officials should not behave.

In this case, however, congressional ethics rules say the type of travel received by Pingree from Sussman is allowed because they got engaged to be married in 2009. The House Ethics Manual considers the flights as a gift from a family member, which is permissible.

"When a member, officer or employee wishes to accept a gift on the basis of the personal friendship provision and the value of the gift exceeds $250, the official must first obtain the written approval of the Standards Committee," the manual says. "However, gifts from one's fiance or fiancee are acceptable under the rule's provision on gifts from relatives, and so the requirements of the personal friendship provision need not be observed regarding those gifts."

Sussman is founder and chairman of a billion-dollar investment fund called Paloma Partners, and a regular donor to Democratic political causes and candidates in Maine. Sussman and employees of his company have also contributed thousands of dollars in campaign funds to Pingree, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

The plane is a 2007 Dassault Falcon 2000EX registered to Magic Carpet Enterprises LLC, of Westchester County, N.Y., which is owned by Sussman.

The Maine Watchdog is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which includes conservative journalists such as Tucker Carlson and Jack Fowler on its advisory council.

The story published Thursday criticized Pingree's use of a private jet because of testimony she gave in 2006 as president of Common Cause, which promotes government transparency and integrity.

"Most Americans never have and never will fly on a chartered jet, much less a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches," she said. "So when members of Congress constantly fly around on corporate jets and pay only the cost of a commercial ticket, it contributes to the corrosive public perception that members of Congress are more like the fat cats of Wall Street than they are like the rest of us."

Despite her relationship with Sussman, Ritch said, Pingree's record for toughness on Wall Street is clear.

"She was a strong supporter and voted for the toughest Wall Street reform since the Great Depression," he said. "She has been clearly on the record of being in favor of doing away with the tax breaks for wealthy people, like the kind that work on Wall Street. She's been clearly on the record in favor of closing tax loopholes that private equity and hedge fund managers use."

Nevertheless, the Maine Republican Party sent out a statement criticizing Pingree for the flights.

"Chellie Pingree's hypocrisy is simply stunning," said Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine GOP. "She has made herself out to be a champion of the underclass, but now we see she's turned into the same 'Wall Street Fat Cat' she railed against."

Recent polls have Pingree leading challenger Scontras by more than 20 percentage points.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

rmetzler@centralmaine.com

 

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