James Gill: A frequent flier hits some turbulence

As staffers review her travel records, Mary Landrieu might hope they will discover that her campaign paid for a trip she took on U.S. Senate business.

Republicans, in the buildup to Election Day, are hammering Landrieu for saddling taxpayers with her airfare to fundraisers. The Landrieu campaign, which assures us that her woes originated in a billing error by a charter flight company, could take the wind out of their sails if it found another one that worked the other way around.

No, that is not likely to happen. A mistake that left a politician out of pocket would not have been overlooked in the first place. A similar level of vigilance is hardly to be expected every time the taxpayer gets screwed.

Landrieu, having raised $14 million this election cycle, hardly needs to stiff taxpayers for the cost of a flight from New Orleans to Opelousas, say, and it is a bit of a stretch to impute larcenous intent. Still, she has been obliged to reimburse her Senate account for a couple of flights — with the distinct possibility of more to come — and the Republicans are naturally doing their best to make a federal case out of it.

That might even be the literal truth, for billing the public to attend fundraisers is against the law, and a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center has suggested Landrieu should face civil fines over a flight she took in November. That was a memorable day for Landrieu, because she stood up President Barack Obama in New Orleans to wow a couple of hundred women supporters in Lake Charles.

CNN reported early this month that the $3,200 airfare had been charged to the taxpayer, but the Landrieu campaign announced that it had reimbursed her Senate account a few days earlier after discovering that the charter flight company had misdirected its invoice. The campaign never would have noticed so long after the event if Landrieu hadn’t ordered a review of her travel records in response to a USA Today report that senators bill taxpayers $1 million a year for charter flights. Landrieu, having racked up 47,000 miles last year, was among the biggest spenders.

It was a prudent use of our money, a flack explained: “This alleviates the need for multiday stopovers and maximizes the senator’s interaction with her constituents.” That would make our other senator, David Vitter, a bit of a slouch in constituent service, for he reported no charter flights at all. He flies commercial out of state and manages to drive himself around Louisiana. Somehow, he has still managed an approval rating that makes him a favorite in the upcoming governor’s race, while Landrieu is in the toughest fight of her life to win re-election.

After the Lake Charles embarrassment, the Landrieu campaign announced it was reimbursing her Senate account $5,721 for a charter flight from New Orleans to Dallas via Shreveport in September. The Dallas fundraiser she attended might have qualified as incidental to official business, making her fare billable to her Senate account, but, with Republicans dubbing her “Air Mary,” she was clearly keen to avoid any more bad publicity.

She got it anyway when Politico reported that her Senate account picked up the tab for two excursions in 2012. One, from New Orleans to Vidalia, Shreveport, Alexandria and back, cost $6,787. Two months later, Landrieu flew from New Orleans to Opelousas, Patterson and back for $3,437. Since both trips included fundraisers, it may be that at least some of the cost should have been picked up by the campaign.

Landrieu has now ordered another staff review of her travel records, this one covering her entire 18 years in the Senate. That’s long enough for her staff to figure out which account should be charged for her travels.

Political science professors quoted in news accounts suggest the charter flight flap is “small potatoes,” but close elections are not necessarily decided by weighty issues. And elections don’t get much closer than this one appears to be. Landrieu, as the sole Southern Democrat in the Senate, and the only Democrat holding statewide office in Louisiana, is already running against the tide of history, and her main Republican challenger, Congressman Bill Cassidy, is gaining strength.

Polls put Cassidy fractionally ahead, and he has slightly more money on hand than Landrieu. Cassidy, one of the profs unkindly noted, is “not the most charismatic individual,” but you don’t always need charisma to go places in politics. He might point out you don’t always need a charter flight company, either.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.