More political turbulence for U.S. Sen Landrieu's travels

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu
Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu

Maybe it’s time to call it Chartergate.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., encountered more political headwinds relating to her travel on chartered airplanes Thursday, with her Senate office saying her re-election campaign would be reimbursing her official Senate expense account for the cost of yet another charter flight related to a campaign event.

The reimbursement is the second disclosed this week that is part of Landrieu’s effort to square her spending with federal law, which prohibits tapping official accounts for campaign purposes.

Both disclosures, reported initially by CNN, followed on media examination of official records of senators’ spending from their office accounts — an examination that generated a USA Today article July 31 reporting that Landrieu shelled out more than $47,000 from her account in 2013 on charter flights (among 24 senators who paid more than $1 million total for charters).

That spending is legal, as long as the travel relates to the duties of Landrieu’s public office. But it, nonetheless, generated criticism of Landrieu from her Republican challengers, and they have tripled down this week.

“Sen. Landrieu obviously does not have any protocols in place to protect taxpayer dollars,” a spokesman for her leading challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, said Thursday in a prepared statement. The latest revelation “shows a pattern of mismanagement” by Landrieu, the spokesman said.

Another Republican in the race, former Entergy executive Rob Maness, said in his own statement Thursday, “Every day, new details about Sen. Mary Landrieu’s questionable and illegal use of taxpayer dollars are exposed. This isn’t an isolated incident, it’s an ongoing pattern of behavior.”

A spokesman for Landrieu said the latest correction flows from an “abundance of caution” on Landrieu’s part to make sure she is following the rules.

Each senator is allocated an office expense account by the federal government, with the amount varying depending on the population of the senator’s state and its distance from Washington. Senators are allowed considerable discretion in how they spend the money, but it is restricted to official needs. Landrieu’s account runs to about $3 million a year, which she uses primarily to cover staff salaries and travel.

The more recent disclosure of a foul-up with the account concerns a Landrieu trip by charter plane from New Orleans to Shreveport and on to Dallas in September. Landrieu traveled to Shreveport on official business to attend a civil rights event that extended late in the day then continued to Dallas for an overnight layover prior to taking a commercial flight to Washington, her office said.

Her campaign team added a fundraising event in Dallas to her schedule the next morning, her Senate office said. Her office account covered the entire $5,721.23 cost of the charter flights, and because of the campaign event, that account will be reimbursed for at least the Shreveport-Dallas leg of the trip, Landrieu’s office said.

For trips that combine official business and campaign activities, senators are supposed to allot their expenses proportionately between their official accounts and campaign treasuries. But the Senate’s guidance for the bookkeeping says the cost-sharing provision is not triggered by “incidental” campaign activity on a trip — activity that amounts to less than 15 percent of the total time and effort.

Because there are no direct flights from Shreveport to Washington, Landrieu was scheduled to lay over in Dallas in any case to catch a plane from there the next morning for her trip back to the Senate, her office said. But in an effort to clear the record, she will forgo the possibility of classifying the campaign activity in Dallas as incidental, her office said.

The other incident was more clear-cut: On Nov. 8, Landrieu flew by charter plane from New Orleans to Lake Charles to attend a $40-a-plate fundraising lunch attended by hundreds of women. The $3,200 bill for the round trip was submitted to her office account, which paid it. When reporters started to look into her total charter expenses, her campaign said it reviewed the records and discovered the billing mistake, which it blamed on the charter company, Butler Aviation, of Houma.

Company President Bobby Butler declined Wednesday to discuss details of his business with Landrieu, but he said it’s possible the company made the mistake.

Butler also provided the planes for the September trip. In both cases, Butler will resolve the billing snafu by crediting the office account for the amount of the misdirected payments and then rebilling Landrieu’s campaign, her staff said.

Also Thursday, a conservative advocacy group, Keep Louisiana Working, said it had filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over Landrieu’s use of official funds for the November trip. Paul S. Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington group that supports strong enforcement of campaign laws, said Wednesday that because of the relatively small amount of money involved and Landrieu’s moves to correct the mistake, it was unlikely the FEC would take action against her. FEC complaints typically take more than a year to resolve.

Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog.