Sen. McCaskill repays $89,000 for chartered flights

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill sent the U.S. Treasury a personal check Wednesday for nearly $89,000 to cover the costs of chartered flights on a plane that she co-owns and has used for Senate business.

McCaskill, who chartered the plane at least 89 times since 2007, billed the flights to her Senate office. She co-owns the plane with her husband and other investors.

McCaskill was unavailable for comment, but Maria Speiser, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Democrat, said the senator and the other owners made no profit on the flights. She also said that McCaskill had not broken any laws or Senate rules, but was repaying the money to dispel any misperceptions.

“She understands that the optics of the bigger picture may not seem as cut and dry, so she’s more than happy to address that concern as well,” Speiser said.

A former Missouri state auditor and Jackson County prosecutor, McCaskill has carved out a reputation in the Senate as a government spending watchdog. She faces what is likely to be a tough re-election battle next year. Both parties view her race as a top priority.

A poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, gave her only a slight edge against a field of potential Republican challengers.

The airplane story was first reported by Politico, a daily newspaper and website that covers politics, and noted that McCaskill has authored legislation to reform overseas air travel by members of Congress.

The newspaper reported that her chartered flights actually cost nearly $76,000. Speiser said that McCaskill paid back more because she included the costs of the pilots.

Use of chartered flights is a common practice by lawmakers. Marc Elias, McCaskill’s attorney who specializes in government ethics and campaign finance laws, told Politico that Senate rules allow members to use for official business a plane that either they or their families own. Elias could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.

Similarly, under congressional rules, members of Congress and aides are reimbursed when they use their own cars for official business.

However, lawmakers have drawn criticism in the past for charter flights when they use planes provided by donors and other special interests.

Like most of her colleagues, McCaskill generally travels by commercial airlines when she returns to the state on weekends and during recesses. She has used chartered flights at times for travel within the state when she’s home.

Speiser noted that the $76,000 that McCaskill has paid to charter the plane over the past four years was less than the amount that former Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri spent on charter air travel in the same period, according to Senate records. Speiser added it also was less than what was spent by her predecessor, former Republican Sen. Jim Talent.

Others have rung up higher charter flight bills. During the first six months of 2009, for example, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas spent nearly $153,000 on chartered flights and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York spent $144,000.

“Sen. McCaskill has been very careful flying on taxpayer dollars,” Speiser said. “She has averaged a fraction of the cost of chartered air travel in Missouri compared to Sen. Bond or Sen. Talent. She has only paid for the use of her plane as required by the Senate rules, and there has been no profit to her or her family. She’s glad there’s transparency — that’s why people can see this information.”

The plane in question is owned by Sunset Cove Associates LLC, a company that McCaskill’s husband, St. Louis businessman Joseph Shepard, incorporated in 2002, according to Politico. As a result of his business interests, McCaskill is among the wealthiest members of the Senate.

Politico reported that her most expensive trip cost $8,000 and occurred March 30 to April 1 last year when she made 10 stops around the state.

Another trip, according to Politico, was in May 2008, when she flew one-way from Washington to St. Louis at a cost of $1,182. The newspaper said a commercial flight on Expedia with advanced purchase would have run between $154 and $645.

Speiser said that both McCaskill and Bond were on that flight, which they used to inspect tornado damage in Missouri. They flew to Neosho, Mo., as well.

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