WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill said Monday that she owes nearly $300,000 for four years' worth of back taxes on a private airplane that has become a political headache.
McCaskill said she'd pay the bill immediately and has told her husband to "sell the damn plane."
"I will never set foot on the plane again," McCaskill said.
McCaskill, a first-term Missouri Democrat, narrowly defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Talent in 2006, and she faced an already uphill re-election fight next year. Democrats control 53 seats in the Senate, and with slew of retirements, McCaskill's problems cast yet more uncertainty on the party's efforts to retain its thin majority.
The airplane foul-up has handed Republicans a tailor-made issue to attack the image that McCaskill has so carefully built as an opponent of government excess and secrecy.
McCaskill has already had to face questions about why she used the plane for a political trip that her office mistakenly billed to the taxpayers. Using public funds for political travel is prohibited by Senate rules.
"This is the third time in less than two weeks that she's had to change her story about her private plane, and she only admitted any of her wrongdoing once she got caught by the media," Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.
McCaskill, former Missouri state auditor, took full responsibility for the failure to pay the $287,273 in personal property taxes that her family owes St. Louis County, where it stored the aircraft.
She insisted that there was no effort on her family's part to evade taxes because they've consistently paid the state and county sales taxes on the plane.
But under Missouri law, McCaskill said she has since learned, an owner is responsible for "self-reporting" the aircraft to the county where it is kept. Otherwise, counties remain unaware and the owner would never receive a personal property tax bill for the plane.
"There are people I could blame for this, but I know better," McCaskill said. "As an auditor, I know I should have checked for myself. I should have checked for the documentation. I should have been asking the question."
McCaskill's revelation is likely to persuade Republicans that she's politically vulnerable and further energize an aggressive campaign to recapture her seat.
"It's something that is going to be used against her in the upcoming election," said Peverill Squire, who teacher political science at the University of Missouri. "She is probably lucky it comes now and well ahead of Election Day.
Two candidates have already entered the Republican primary field for her seat, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and unsuccessful 2008 House candidate Ed Martin. Two more, Republican Rep. Todd Akin and former Missouri GOP chairman Ann Wagner, are considering the contest.
Politico, a Washington-based newspaper covering politics and Capitol Hill, first reported earlier this month about McCaskill's use of her plane for Senate business.
The costs were included in a check for $88,000 that McCaskill paid to the U.S. Treasury this month after her office discovered that among 89 official flights between 2007 and 2010 in which she used her own plane, one turned out to be to a political event in Hannibal, Mo. That trip alone cost $1,220.
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