Washington — For U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., airplanes are proving troublesome in her effort to get re-elected this fall.
Specifically, the planes that she charters to fly around Louisiana on official business and to campaign for votes: Those two functions are supposed to be kept separate when it comes to who pays for them. But Landrieu’s Republican challengers late Tuesday and Wednesday called her out for apparently breaking federal law in mixing up her accounts payable.
The violation, as first reported Tuesday by CNN, involves a $3,200 round-trip flight she took from New Orleans to Lake Charles on Nov. 8 to go to a $40-per-person campaign fundraising luncheon attended by hundreds of women supporters. That was supposed to be paid for with campaign funds. But Landrieu instead paid for it out of the nearly $3 million in taxpayer money she gets each year for official expenses of her public office, most of which goes for staff salaries and travel. Such a payment is an illegal use of the office account.
“Sen. Landrieu’s disregard and abuse of taxpayer money is unacceptable,” her leading Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, said in a statement. “This is her budget and in the words of Harry Truman: ‘the buck stops here.’ ”
Retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, another Republican running for the Senate, said Wednesday he would be adding a 13th point to the “Contract with Louisiana” he released last month: “I will not violate any federal laws in dispensing my duties as your United States senator.”
The Landrieu campaign said it discovered the billing error when it reviewed her flight records last month in response to media inquiries about spending on charter planes from her office account. Those payments are legal when the flights are for official business, but they created some political turbulence for her when USA Today reported July 31 that Landrieu spent more than $47,000 in taxpayer money in 2013 on such flights (among 24 senators who spent more than $1 million total for charters). Cassidy and Maness criticized that spending, too, and Cassidy on Wednesday echoed Maness’ earlier demand that Landrieu repay the $47,000 to the federal Treasury.
The Landrieu campaign said the office account was mistakenly billed for the Nov. 8 flight by Butler Aviation, a Houma charter operator. The campaign said that at its request, Butler Aviation returned the payment to the office account and re-billed the flight to the campaign, which has paid the invoice.
“We take our finances very seriously and we’re glad we caught this mistake by the vendor and were able to rectify the matter as soon as possible,” a Landrieu campaign spokesman said.
Butler Aviation owner Bobby Butler said Wednesday he would not release information about the details of his business with Landrieu. But, he said, “There are mistakes made in every business, and that may have happened.”
Butler provides charters to Landrieu for both campaigning and official travel.
“She and her aides are very imperative about separating the two,” he said.
The Landrieu campaign spokesman said its review of the flight records did not uncover any other erroneous payments.
While the original payment was clearly a violation of the law, it’s unlikely that the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign-finance regulations, nor ethics investigators will crack down on Landrieu because the amount involved is relatively small and her campaign corrected the mistake, said Paul S. Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that supports strong enforcement of campaign laws.
“This isn’t going to set anyone’s hair on fire at the FEC or the Senate Ethics Committee,” Ryan said.
But Ryan didn’t think much of the attempt by the Landrieu team to blame Butler Aviation for the misstep.
“Senators and their staffs need to take responsibility for their mistakes,” he said. “When a bill comes into a Senate office, it’s the responsibility of the Senate staff to pay the bills that are appropriately paid with taxpayer dollars, and to re-route the bills that are campaign expenses.”
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