AUGUSTA — Former Gov. Paul LePage and his staff members paid for more than 40 rooms at Washington, D.C.’s Trump International Hotel during a two-year period, spending at least $22,000 in Maine taxpayer money at a business owned by the president’s family.

Documents recently obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram show that the LePage administration paid anywhere from $362 to more than $1,100 a night for rooms at the luxury hotel during trips to meet with President Trump or his inner circle, attend White House events or talk to members of Congress. Receipts from those dozen trips also show the Republican governor or his administration spending hundreds of dollars on filet mignon or other expensive menu items at the restaurant in the Trump hotel. Those expenditures are likely to draw additional scrutiny from attorneys who have cited LePage’s previously disclosed stays at the D.C. hotel in a federal lawsuit alleging the president is improperly profiting from the business.

The spending levels at the Trump hotel were so high that they were flagged by a worker in the state controller’s office, who sought guidance on state regulations for reimbursing such expenditures.

“The reason I am asking is because the Governor and some of his staff are staying in Washington, D.C. pretty frequently at the Trump International Hotel and the room cost is WAY more than the allowed amount,” the worker wrote to Deputy Controller Shirley Browne in June 2017, following a particularly costly month. “He is not attending a conference of any type but is meeting with the President, testifying, meeting with lawmakers and others, etc. so the normal exemptions (to state spending limits) do not apply.”

DOCUMENTS RELEASED AFTER LEPAGE LEFT OFFICE

The email and Trump hotel receipts were among more than 2,000 pages of documents the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram obtained or reviewed under Freedom of Access Act requests for travel spending by the governor, his staff and security team in 2017-2018.

The newspaper submitted its initial request for the public records in March 2017 – amid a flurry of trips by LePage to the nation’s capital – and obtained a portion of the records for his security detail from the Department of Public Safety in June 2017.

Paul LePage or his staff stayed or dined at the Trump hotel about 12 times since March 2017.

But the former governor’s office failed to provide detailed travel records for LePage and his staff despite repeated requests from the newspaper over the course of 18 months. It was not until after LePage had left office – and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills was sworn in – that documents originally requested in March 2017 and subsequently were finally provided to the Press Herald.

The records – including receipts for airfare and car rentals, lodging, restaurants and other expenses – as well as accounting summaries provided by the state, show that taxpayers funded about $170,000 in out-of-state travel by LePage and staff members during fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and part of 2019. Organizations holding meetings or conferences attended by LePage or his staffers reimbursed the state for more than $37,000 of those expenses.

Yet Maine taxpayers footed the bill for at least $22,000 spent at the Washington, D.C., hotel owned by the Trump Organization, which is run by the president’s two sons. The documents suggest the state was reimbursed for only $124 of that sum.

In comparison, LePage’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, spent just over $45,000 on out-of-state travel his last two years in office, 2009 and 2010, according to state finance records. His total lodging tab for the two years was $9,524.

OFFICIALS BELIEVE BAN ON EMOLUMENTS VIOLATED

LePage’s stays at Trump International had drawn legal scrutiny even before the latest documents revealed the full extent of his administration’s patronage of the hotel, which has become a symbol of the murky line between the president’s political and business interests.

In late 2017, the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., cited a handful of LePage stays in a federal lawsuit claiming the president is illegally reaping financial benefits from the hotel. The suit contends that Trump’s financial interest in the business is a blatant violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on “emoluments” – profits or gains received directly or indirectly by the president from foreign, federal or state governments.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a subpoena in U.S. District Court in December ordering the LePage administration to provide copies of the same documents the Telegram requested, showing payments to Trump International or its restaurant, BLT Prime, since Election Day 2016. And the federal judge in the case pointed to LePage’s patronage of the hotel – among other reasons – in allowing the emoluments case to proceed last year.

“Leaving aside how Maine’s citizens may have felt about the propriety of their Governor living large at the Hotel while on official business in Washington, the fact that States, other than Maryland or the District of Columbia (while, not a State) might patronize the Hotel while on official business rather clearly suggests that Maryland and the District of Columbia may very well feel themselves obliged, i.e., coerced, to patronize the Hotel in order to help them obtain federal favors,” U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte wrote last March.

LePage responded by calling Messitte an “imbecile” for suggesting he “could buy the president so cheap.” A month later, LePage and his staff spent nearly $4,500 at Trump International while in Washington for events at the White House.

Julie Rabinowitz, LePage’s former press secretary, who now serves as the policy and communications director for the Maine People Before Politics organization created by the former governor, said LePage was unlikely to discuss his travel receipts because he may be deposed on the federal emoluments lawsuit. LePage’s longtime political adviser, Brent Littlefield, also declined to comment except to suggest reporters should also look at previous governors’ travel records as well.

A message left for LePage’s last known mobile phone also went unreturned.

RETURNING TO TRUMP HOTEL AGAIN AND AGAIN

Most of LePage’s trips and his stays at the Trump hotel in D.C. were done to conduct state business. LePage traveled to Washington to discuss issues such as energy or infrastructure development with Trump or members of his Cabinet, to attend White House events and to testify before congressional committees.

While LePage stayed at multiple D.C.-area hotels during the two-year period, receipts and out-of-state travel authorization forms show the governor and senior staffers returned to Trump International again and again. And during most trips where they stayed at the Trump hotel, LePage or administration members expected to have some interaction with the president or his Cabinet.

The president’s financial ties to Trump International Hotel have spawned at least three federal lawsuits alleging violations of the Constitution’s prohibition on emoluments – profits or gains received directly or indirectly by the president from foreign, federal or state governments. Associated Press/Jon Elswick

All told, LePage or his staff stayed or dined at the hotel on roughly a dozen occasions since March 2017.

The costliest trip occurred in late April to early May 2017, when the governor, two staffers and two Maine State Police officers assigned to protect LePage incurred $6,534.72 in expenses at the Trump hotel over three days. A former LePage staffer reimbursed the state $925 for his rooms a year later, although the repayment appears to have been voluntary.

At the time, LePage was in Washington to testify before a congressional committee against the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument – an issue he had personally lobbied Trump about weeks earlier – as well as to meet with members of Congress about health care reform and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

In addition to more than $5,600 for 12 rooms over the three days – averaging $473 per night – the state also picked up a $362.50 tab for dinner for six at BLT Prime, the restaurant within Trump International. Although the group paid their approximately $130 bar bill separately, Maine taxpayers paid for a $53 filet mignon, a $57 surf & turf, a $55 New York strip steak and a $45 veal chop plus side dishes (at $13 each).

Records show Maine taxpayers also picked up dinner tabs at BLT Prime for $325 in February 2018, $317.30 last September and multiple breakfast or lunch bills exceeding $100.

The most expensive rooms were two each costing $1,128.97 per night in June 2017. According to out-of-state travel forms, LePage was in the capital so he could “participate in an energy discussion and a luncheon with President Trump and 3 other governors” plus meet with Maine Sen. Susan Collins “and a few other members of Congress” to discuss the Affordable Care Act.

And in April of last year, the state paid $4,465 over two days for 11 rooms (each costing $361.62), meals and valet parking at the Trump International. LePage was “attending 2 events at the White House” and expected additional meetings, according to the out-of-state travel forms.

Last year, former LePage spokeswoman Rabinowitz rebuffed any suggestion that the governor was attempting to influence the president by staying at his family’s hotel.

“The governor chooses hotels based upon several factors including price, availability and security,” Rabinowitz said after the judge allowed the emoluments case to proceed. “He has stayed at many different hotels in Washington, D.C., and any insinuation or speculation that a stay in a Trump hotel is made with an expectation or hope of some type of quid-pro-quo is false and irresponsible.”

Records show that the state also occasionally paid for hotel rooms in Washington or other cities for the governor’s adult children.

Daughter Lauren LePage stayed at Trump hotel rooms on at least two trips at times she was not employed by the governor’s office, including April 2018 when she was listed as “attending (White House) events on behalf of the First Family.” In another instance, the state paid $625.53 for two nights at Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac for Paul LePage Jr., who “staffed” for his father – a role typically filled by others in the governor’s office – as LePage met with the provincial premier to discuss forestry, trade and energy issues.

WASHINGTON JOBS FOR SOME IN LEPAGE’S CIRCLE

Some of those participating in the trips, including members of LePage’s staff or Cabinet, later found themselves with new jobs inside the Trump administration or even the White House itself.

Among the LePage officials who landed jobs with the Trump administration and made state-funded trips to Washington, D.C., was former Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who was tapped to head the federal Medicaid program last October.

Mayhew, an ardent LePage supporter who played a key role in implementing his policies on food stamps and welfare reform – such as requiring food stamp recipients, who get an average benefit of $109 a month in Maine, to work, volunteer or go to school – traveled to Washington to meet with Trump officials. While Mayhew did not appear to stay at Trump International during that trip, she and her dinner companions spent $500 at the Capital Grill – a high-end restaurant located between the Capitol and White House – on filet mignon, lobster macaroni and cheese and other dishes.

Others in LePage’s inner circle to be hired by Trump include his former Chief of Staff John McGough, who landed a job in the Department of Health and Human Services in January 2018, and senior policy adviser David Sorensen, who was hired as a speechwriter at the White House in May 2017.

PLANNED TRIP TO RUSSIA ULTIMATELY CANCELED

Out-of-state travel is, of course, part of any modern governor’s job as they advocate for beneficial federal policies, attend conferences, deliver speeches or seek new business investment. LePage and all of his recent predecessors in Maine traveled around the country and around the world at taxpayer expense on official business.

LePage’s participation in trade missions to places such as Iceland, Spain and Canada drew little, if any, scrutiny. His administration’s recent spending in Washington, however, seems at odds with his emphasis on tightening the state’s fiscal belt even without the optics of staying at the president’s controversial hotel.

The state has established guidelines to limit travel spending, based on federal General Services Administration rates, which vary according to locality. The rates for Washington at the time LePage and his staff were traveling there would have allowed a typical state employee to book a room at between $182 and about $250 a night, with an exception to exceed that by 10 percent.

The state’s policy also allows an exception for those traveling with elected officials, according to Browne, the deputy state controller, who cited the exception as justification to the employee who flagged the Trump hotel spending.

The state was reimbursed about $37,000 by organizations such as the Republican Governors Association or by individual travelers for spending on liquor or other personal items. Documents show that the Republican Governors Association, for instance, reimbursed the state for nearly $27,500 in 2017 and 2018 for plane tickets for LePage, staff and his wife to travel to meetings in Chicago, Miami, Austin, Texas, and Aspen, Colorado.

None of those reimbursements were for stays at Trump International, according to data supplied by the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

LePage also made trips to San Francisco, Iceland, Canada, Spain, Montenegro and Helsinki, Finland. It also appears he was poised to travel to Russia in June 2017, a trip that was canceled.

For the prospective Russia trip, the state paid more than $2,800 to a third-party processing company for travel visas as well as $3,451 in fees to the U.S. Commercial Service, the trade promotional arm of the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration.

The visa application shows that LePage and John Butera, who was then the governor’s labor commissioner, intended to travel to the Russian cities of St. Petersburg, Kotlas and Moscow from June 9 to June 15 after a trade trip to Finland. The purpose of the trip was to promote Maine as a destination for Russian tourists, according to the visa application.

The travel receipts also show the state paid some $3,306 for train fare to transport LePage, Butera and at least one security agent between the three cities. But the trip was apparently canceled in late-May and credit card statements appear to show that the state was refunded all but roughly $2,000 of the more than $9,500 that was paid for visas, tickets and other services.

GOVERNMENT CRITICAL OF TRUMP TIES TO HOTEL

The more than $22,000 spent at Trump International by the LePage administration represents more than 13 percent of the $170,000 total spent on travel during the two fiscal years and an even larger share after accounting for expenses reimbursed to the state. That sum pales in comparison, however, to some other governments or political organizations.

A lobbying firm that represents the government of Saudi Arabia, for instance, spent more than $270,000 for rooms for American veterans recruited to lobby against a bill the Saudis opposed, according to a December report in The Washington Post. The Kuwaiti embassy also switched to Trump’s hotel from where it normally held a lavish annual celebration following the president’s election.

The president’s financial ties to Trump International have spawned at least three emoluments lawsuits, protests, a steady stream of media coverage and a critical report from the federal government’s own internal watchdog.

In January, the inspector general of the U.S. General Services Administration determined the agency should have, immediately after the November 2016 election, reviewed whether Trump’s financial stake in the hotel could cause a breach in the Trump Organization’s lease agreement for the Old Post Office building. Instead, GSA attorneys “improperly ignored” the constitutional issues posed by Trump benefiting – or receiving emoluments – from a hotel in a federal building.

“As a result, GSA foreclosed an opportunity for an early resolution to these issues, including a possible solution satisfactory to all parties; and the constitutional issues surrounding the President’s business interests in the lease remain unresolved,” reads the GSA inspector general’s report.

The highest-profile legal case looking to get at those “unresolved” issues is the emoluments lawsuit that mentions LePage.

To date, court filings in the case have focused on only a handful of days that LePage stayed at the hotel based on the incomplete records provided by the LePage administration to the Press Herald in 2017. In fact, LePage and his staff or security officers patronized the hotel repeatedly – at least 40 rooms over a dozen trips.

The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia have subpoenaed the Maine Office of the Governor as well as the Maine State Police seeking all documents pertaining to money spent by LePage administration officials or the governor’s security detail at Trump International or BLT Prime. State officials did not comment on whether those materials have been handed over yet.

LePage recently criticized Mills for her proposed $8 billion, two-year state budget proposal, suggesting she would waste taxpayer dollars.

“The difference between Janet Mills’s budget and a drunken sailor is that a drunken sailor spends his own money,” LePage said in a prepared statement.

Scott Ogden, the communications director for Mills, said she would likely also travel for state business at times.

“Gov. Mills is committed to supporting and advancing the interests of Maine people and there will likely be times that accomplishing these goals will require out-of-state travel, for example, to meet with federal government officials, the congressional delegation, or various stakeholders,” Ogden said. “She will always do so with an eye towards frugality and strive to be transparent.”

 

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