Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) used taxpayer funds to pay for a November 8, 2013 charter airplane flight to attend a campaign fundraiser in Lake Charles, Louisiana, according to a report from CNN. Needless to say, the use of public funds by elected officials to pay for campaign events is illegal.
It wasn’t until July 29, 2014, more than eight months later, that the Landrieu campaign “discovered” the inadvertent error. The campaign, apparently, did not immediately inform members of the Senator’s staff. On July 31, USA Today ran an article that exposed Landrieu’s heavy use of charter flights, which included the November 8 flight to St. Charles.
In that article, Matthew Lehner, the director of communications on Landrieu’s senate staff, defended the taxpayer funds spent on the trip, telling USA Today: “[T]his [charter flight] alleviates the need for multi-day stopovers and maximizes the senator’s interaction with her constituents.”
On August 4, 2014, the air charter company that flew Landrieu to the campaign event provided the taxpayers with a full refund of the thousands of dollars paid for the trip (CNN reports the trip cost $3,200; USA Today reports it cost $5,500), and Landrieu’s campaign cut a check to the charter company for the same amount.
As CNN reported on Tuesday, “Landrieu’s campaign spokesman, Fabien Levy, said in a statement that the charter company mistakenly billed Landrieu’s Senate office instead of her re-election campaign.”
“[W]e take our finances very seriously and are glad we caught the vendor’s mistake and were able to rectify the matter as soon as possible,” Levy told CNN.
But at least one federal campaign law expert, Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, believes Senator Landrieu violated the law.
“It is the senator and the senator’s staff responsibility to comply with federal laws,” Ryan told CNN. “It’s not the job of the vendor, per se. It sounds like their excuse is, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong; it’s the vendor.’ It’s the job of the senator and her staff not to pay bills out of a Senate office account if those bills were not for Senate business.”
Landrieu’s two leading Republican challengers in this fall’s election to the U.S. Senate in Lousiana, Congressman Bill Cassidy and Colonel Rob Manes, quickly pounced on the potentially illegal frequent flyer campaign controversy.
“Senator Landrieu’s disregard and abuse of taxpayer money is unacceptable and, reportedly, illegal,” Cassidy said in a statement on Wednesday. “She should return all the taxpayer money she has spent on charter flights, open up her travel logs for further review to ensure there are not more violations, and apologize to American taxpayers immediately.”
Cassidy added: “Louisiana taxpayers entrusted Senator Landrieu with public dollars. She has a responsibility to use those dollars legally and to uphold the public trust. … This is her budget and in the words of Harry Truman: ‘the buck stops here.’ “
Landrieu’s other major Republican challenger, Colonel Rob Maness said in a statement: “In recent weeks, a disturbing pattern-of-behavior has been exposed revealing Sen. Mary Landrieu’ s constant abuse of taxpayer dollars. I want every Louisianan to know with 100% certainty that I will not act with such carelessness and arrogance.”
Landrieu is one of the Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2014 most at risk of losing her seat. This frequent flyer campaign controversy and her campaign’s less than credible explanations do little to enhance her chances of returning to Washington.