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Sen. McCaskill's travel bills are less than other senators

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill spent less to fly on her plane than two other U.S. senators from Missouri who buzzed the state in chartered aircraft when they were in office, travel records show.

McCaskill, a Democrat, spent about $88,000 for use of her privately owned plane during her first four years in the Senate. But in 2008 alone, former Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican, spent nearly the same amount that McCaskill spent in four years on chartered flights, according to records reviewed by The Kansas City Star.

“It’s expensive,” McCaskill said of the cost of air travel. “I really thought it was only appropriate to do it when time was of the essence.”

Former Sen. Jim Talent, another Republican, also spent more on chartered flights before McCaskill defeated him in 2006.

Still, Senate travel records suggest that McCaskill might have spent less money by chartering smaller planes in some cases, rather than flying in her own bigger plane.

Many of McCaskill’s flights were only a few hundred dollars higher than estimates for similar flights provided to The Star by Aero Charter of Chesterfield, Mo. But McCaskill’s plane — an 11-year-old, 12-seat turboprop Pilatus PC 12/45 — is larger and faster than the four-passenger, twin-engine Baron 58 that Aero Charter quoted.

In other trips, however, McCaskill’s flights were much more expensive than what Aero Charter would have charged.

McCaskill, for example, was reimbursed $2,885 for a round-trip flight from St. Louis to Springfield in June 2008. Aero Charter would have charged only $1,941. A McCaskill flight from St. Louis to St. Joseph to Kansas City and back to St. Louis in February 2009 cost taxpayers $3,631. Aero Charter said it could do the flight now for $2,809.

Experts noted that prices have risen over the years, so a flight in 2011 is generally even more expensive than a flight was in 2007, the year she took office. Two other St. Louis area charter companies The Star checked offered higher estimates for the same flights in 2011.

McCaskill, a former Missouri auditor, said her staff did check on charters at times, but those planes were not always available.

McCaskill has been deflecting criticism in recent weeks following revelations about use of her privately owned plane as she gears up for a re-election campaign next year. One prominent journal, The Cook Political Report, has downgraded her prospects — at least in part because of the plane controversy — and now calls the 2012 race a tossup.

To avoid the perception that she was making a profit off the plane, McCaskill repaid the government $88,000, a figure that also included pilot fees. After further investigation, McCaskill discovered that she had not paid property taxes on the plane, which was hangared in St. Louis County.

That resulted in her writing a check to the county, this one for $320,000. McCaskill apologized for that oversight, as well as for erroneously billing taxpayers for two political trips, which did not qualify as official business.

“Big mistakes,” she acknowledged, adding that the plane is now for sale. “I’ll never set foot in it again,” she said. “It makes me sick to think about it.”

Her goal now, she has said, is to fly coach “as often as I possibly can, and when I am in Missouri, to drive as often as I possibly can, and if that’s not an option, to use charter flights as infrequently as possible.”

She also is aiming at a goal of keeping her travel expenses under $20,000 a year, and continuing to return at least 10 percent of her office budget to the U.S. Treasury.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee has determined that McCaskill complied with reimbursement policies. Not only were her vouchers approved after an initial review, they were re-examined in the wake of the recent controversy and cleared a second time.

“They were all in order,” said Jean Bordewich, the committee’s majority staff director.

In an interview, McCaskill said the reimbursement was based on the cost of owning the plane and dividing that by the number of hours the plane was expected to be flown. That determined an hourly rate, to which were added fuel costs and taxes. Pilot fees were charged separately.

She insisted again that she never made a profit on the plane, which she co-owns with her husband and other investors. In fact, she said she lost money on the aircraft each year. She predicted she’ll also lose money when it’s sold.

The plane, which has been valued at around $2 million, is owned by Sunset Cove Associates LLC, a company that McCaskill’s husband — St. Louis businessman Joseph Shepard — incorporated in 2002.

“This is not a great market,” McCaskill said. “We’re going to sell the plane for a lot, lot less than we bought it for.”

Yet, she said she’s still not releasing her tax returns, which critical Republicans have demanded be made public to verify those losses. Subjecting herself to that level of scrutiny would expose her to all kinds of accusations, she contended.

“It is just a road that I know that if we begin going down it, it’ll be a never-ending road full of distortions, half-truths and misrepresentations,” McCaskill said.

Bond and Talent

The $88,000 that McCaskill billed the government for flying her plane compares with the more than $300,000 that Bond spent chartering flights during the same 2007-2010 period, according to Senate records. He retired this year after 24 years in the Senate.

In 2007, Bond’s bill for chartering planes was more than $90,000; in 2008 it was $88,000; in 2009, nearly $100,000; and in 2010, at least $53,000. (Records for the last three months of 2010 are not yet available.)

Their costs varied for what appeared to be the same trip, though at different times. For example, Bond used Jefferson City Flying Service. In June 2010, his bill for a flight from Mexico, Mo., to St. Louis was $1,543, according to Senate records. McCaskill took the same trip in May 2008 and charged the public only $605.

In March 2009, Bond flew from St. Louis to Springfield at a cost of $2,551. In June 2008, McCaskill flew from St. Louis to Springfield and back for $2,509.

Talent also spent more on chartered aircraft during his four years in the Senate than McCaskill. His use of private aircraft cost taxpayers more than $200,000.

But could McCaskill have saved taxpayers money and avoided the political embarrassment if she’d used private charter companies and not flown her bigger plane, which seats up to 12 people?

McCaskill’s aides countered that the senator sometimes needs more than three aides to fly with her to events such as town hall meetings, where staff must help set up the event and then interact with members of the public.

They also noted that several variables also influence the cost of a charter flight, including ramp fees, taxes and whether passengers stay overnight in the destination city.

Aero Charter, however, included taxes in its estimates for The Star, and said that ramp fees in Missouri are often nonexistent at many airports, such as those in Springfield, Columbia and at smaller towns.

Some charter companies do charge $60 an hour in “wait” fees, where pilots must stand by until passengers return for the trip home.

But Aero Charter founder Bob Thomas said the down economy has forced Aero to often waive those fees.

Reimbursement

Use of chartered aircraft is a common practice among Washington lawmakers. Many enjoy the speed and convenience of being able to fly around their states or districts to smaller towns not served by commercial carriers.

Senators who charter private planes pay the charter service’s rate and bill the public for that amount. But lawmakers such as McCaskill, with a financial stake in the plane they use for official business, determine their own basic operating costs.

McCaskill aides have said she didn’t include profit margins that private charter companies add to their charges.

“Senator McCaskill used operating costs, which is both appropriate and consistent with Senate rules that govern planes owned by a member or their family,” said Marc Elias, McCaskill’s attorney and an expert on government ethics.

Robert Walker, a former chief counsel for both the Senate and House ethics committees, said that McCaskill’s effort to establish a reimbursement rate that “does not include any margin for profit” would “eliminate any potential for self-dealing or conflict of interest concerns.”

Yet, the practice of seeking taxpayer reimbursement for a privately owned plane is rare in Washington.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is known to use her plane occasionally on government business, but does not charge taxpayers for those flights, an aide for the California Democrat said.

Meanwhile, McCaskill said she plans to spend a lot of time this month traveling around Missouri when the Senate is in recess. But her plane will be grounded.

“I’ll be driving, not flying,” she said.

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