U.S. Sen. Landrieu facing more charter plane revelations

More potentially damaging revelations about the use of charter planes by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., rolled out in the political media Monday, adding to the challenge she faces in trying to limit the impact of the reports on her high-profile re-election campaign.

In their drive to win the six seats they need to capture a Senate majority this fall, Republicans have targeted Landrieu, a three-term incumbent who is the only Democrat still holding a statewide elected office in Louisiana. They’ve seized on “chartergate,” with its disclosures of illegal use of official Senate funds for campaign-related travel, to attack her conduct.

“Billing Louisiana taxpayers for one flight might be an oversight, twice is a mistake, but four times is a clear pattern of illegally abusing taxpayer dollars to fund campaign travel,” a spokesman for the campaign of her leading challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said Monday.

That was in response to a report in Politico, a Washington political news outlet, that potentially added two flights in 2012 to the two in 2013 earlier acknowledged by Landrieu as crossing the line between official trips, which can be paid for legally from her taxpayer-financed official office account, and campaign travel, which can’t.

Landrieu has said she will draw on her campaign funds to restore to her office account the $3,200 spent on a round-trip charter flight from New Orleans to Lake Charles for a fundraiser in November, and at least part of the $5,700 spent in September on a trip from New Orleans to Shreveport to Dallas that mixed official business in Shreveport with a campaign event in Dallas during her layover there before she boarded a commercial flight back to Washington.

Landrieu said Friday that she has ordered a review of all the flights billed to her office account over her 18 years in the Senate and plans to issue a public report on the results by the Sept. 8 return of the Senate from its August recess. A spokesman said Monday that she would not comment until that review is complete.

Republicans say the review should be conducted publicly by outside investigators, not by Landrieu personnel.

The 2012 flights cited by Politico included one in August from New Orleans to Vidalia to Shreveport to Alexandria and back to New Orleans, and one in October from New Orleans to Opelousas to Patterson and back to New Orleans. Her official account paid $6,800 for the first flight and $3,400 for the second. Based on newspaper accounts and campaign-finance reports, both involved some level of campaign activity, Politico said.

Senate travel can fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee. FEC rules are quite strict on prohibiting campaign activity on official trips, while the committee allows more flexibility.

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.

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