September 28, 2010

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree's jet travel cleared by ethics panel

Flights aboard her fiance's plane are permissible under U.S. House rules, the ethics committee says.

By Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Chellie Pingree

Press Herald file

Request from Rep. Chellie Pingree to House ethics committee:

September 24, 2010

Dear Chairwoman Lofgren:

Although I have previously had conversations with Committee staff on this matter, I am writing today requesting a written response from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Is it permissible for me to accept flights on aircraft owned by my fiance Donald Sussman?
I appreciate your timely consideration on this matter.

Sincerely,
Chellie Pingree
Member of Congress

Response from House ethics committee to Pingree:

September 24, 2010

Dear Colleague:
This responds to your letter dated September 24, 2010, seeking Committee guidance on whether you may accept flights on an aircraft privately owned by your fiance. As detailed more fully below, such flights are permissible under House rules.

According to your letter and additional information you provided to committee counsel, the background on this matter is as follows. Your fiance, Donald Sussman, owns a small aircraft, and he often offers you transportation using this aircraft at no cost to you. You would like to confirm that your acceptance of this free transportation is permissible under House rules.

House rules define the term “gift” to mean: a gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan forbearance, or other item having monetary value. The term includes gifts of services training, transportation, lodging, and meals, whether provided in kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred.

Members may not accept any gift, except as specifically permitted by House rules. The House gift rule permits a Member, officer, or employee to accept “[a] gift from a relative.” This provision expressly incorporates the definition of “relative” provided in the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which states that term “relative” “shall be deemed to include the fiancé or fiancée of the [Member].” The gift rule does not impose a limit on the dollar value or frequency of gifts that may be accepted under this exception.

Accordingly, a House Member, officer, or employee may accept an unlimited number of gifts, of any dollar value, from the individual’s fiancé. The exception would permit the acceptance of unlimited gifts of transportation, including travel by private aircraft, where the donor is the fiancé of the recipient.

If you have any further questions, please contact the Committee’s Office of Advice and Education at extension 5-7103.

Sincerely,
Zoe Lofgren, Chair
Jo Bonner, Ranking Republican Member

Statement from Lance Dutson, communications director for Maine Republican Victory Campaign:

September 27, 2010

The opinion from Rules is in response to a letter from Pingree, which has yet to be published.

It is important, first, that Pingree release the letter she wrote, to understand the response from Ethics.

“This responds to your letter dated September 24, 2010, seeking Committee guidance on whether you may accept flights on an aircraft privately owned by your fiancee.”

Note the use of the phrase  ‘privately owned by your fiancee’. The airplane in question is not, in fact, privately owned by Donald Sussman. The airplane is owned by Magic Carpet Enterprises, LLC: http://www.aircraftone.com/aircraft/registrations/tompkins-county-ny-new-york.asp

Though Sussman may have partial ownership in this LLC as a way to protect himself from liability, the plane is distinctly not ‘privately owned by Donald Sussman’. This is why the letter Pingree sent is crucial in interpreting the letter from the Rules Committee. If Pingree did not stipulate the accurate ownership of the plane, this ruling is without basis and should be disregarded.

Further, the letter from House Rules shows that the flights are governed by the Gifts clause of House rules, rather than the Travel clause:

“We note that House Rule 23, clause 15, which restricts the ability of Members to pay for a flight on a privately-owned aircraft, permits Members to reimburse for the cost of a flight taken on a plane owned by a ‘family member’ of the Member. … This rule does not include fiancee in it’s definition of ‘family member’. However, this provision governs only the permissibility of a Member paying for or reimbursing for the cost of a flight on a private plane; it is inapplicable where a Member is receiving such a flight as a gift that is otherwise applicable under the gift rule.”

Pingree may cite the allowance of corporate jet use under the Travel clause, which allows the use of a corporate aircraft in the case that:
“The aircraft is owned or leased by the Member or the Member’s family member, including fractional ownership or equity in a nonpublic corporation, provided that such use does not exceed the individual’s proportionate ownership or equity share;”

This allowance does not apply, however, because of the Rules Committee’s assertion that the Travel clause does not apply. There appears to be no such allowance for gifts from corporations within the Gifts clause.

In addition, the Travel clause’s definition of ‘family’ does not include fiancees. This means that even if the use of the corporate allowance within the Travel clause were applied, Pingree would still be in violation, because Sussman does not fit the definition of ‘family’.

It’s important that any decision by the Rules Committee is based on an accurate set of facts. In this case, it appears Pingree’s office may not have been truthful in their communication with the Committee. We urge Pingree to release her request letter first, and, if she did not tell the whole truth regarding the plane’s ownership, we urge Congresswoman Pingree to re-submit their request with the full set of facts included.

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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