Under fire, Landrieu orders review of travel

Moving to defuse a simmering controversy over her use of taxpayer-financed charter flights for campaigning — a violation of federal law — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said today she has ordered a review of all her air travel in her 18 years in the Senate to make sure no other trips were paid for improperly.

Running for re-election this fall in a deep-red state, Landrieu is a principal target of Republicans’ efforts to pick up six seats and add control of the Senate to their reign over the U.S. House. Her Republican challengers — U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, and ex-Air Force Col. Rob Maness — have sought to capitalize on “chartergate,” criticizing her payment for two campaign-related flights from restricted funds allocated by the federal government for the operation of her Senate office.

The first of those payments — a clear violation of federal law — has been characterized by Landrieu as a billing mistake by the charter-flight operator, Butler Aviation, of Houma. The second payment falls in something of a gray area, but Landrieu has said she will make the office account whole in any case by offsetting its outlay with campaign money.

A Landrieu spokesman said the review will look at all payments from her office account for commercial and charter flights dating to when she took office in January 1997, to make sure the trips were for official Senate business — a legal use of the money. The results of the review will be released publicly by the time the Senate returns on Sept. 8 from its August recess, the spokesman said.

The disclosure of both payments at issue, reported initially by CNN, followed 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, too, generated criticism of Landrieu from her Republican opponents.

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 limited 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 that 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 for a layover 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 Federal Election Commission enforces campaign-spending laws, and its definition of incidental campaign activity is more narrow than the Senate guidelines lay out.

In the other incident, Landrieu flew by charter plane from New Orleans to Lake Charles on Nov. 8 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 examine her total charter expenses, her campaign said it reviewed the records and discovered the billing mistake, which it blamed on Butler Aviation.

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 re-billing Landrieu’s campaign, her staff said.

Because the amounts involved are relatively small and Landrieu has taken steps to correct the wrongful payments, enforcement action by the FEC is considered unlikely.