Maine U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree says criticism of her use of corporate jets is a politically motivated attack on her personal life.
State Republicans are using footage of Democrat Chellie Pingree deplaning from her fiance’s private jet to paint the lawmaker as a hypocrite based on past statements she has made.
The video was first released by MaineWatchdog.com, a political blog operated by Stephen Burklin and funded by the Republican-backed Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. It shows Pingree landing at Portland International Jetport recently with her fiance, billionaire hedge fund chairman S. Donald Sussman.
The Democrat responded publicly for the first time Sunday. Pingree told the Portland Press Herald that her opponents are again trying to make Sussman an issue. She says her opponents send people skulking around, following them home at night and knocking on their door.
Pingree said she checked ethics rules to make sure that taking flights on Sussman’s jet was permissible and she’s doing nothing wrong.
GOP members are blasting Pingree, largely because of congressional testimony she gave in 2006 — when she headed the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Common Cause — that was critical about legislators using private aircraft.
“Most Americans never have and never will fly on a chartered jet, much less a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches,” she said. “So when members of Congress constantly fly around on corporate jets and pay only the cost of a commercial ticket, it contributes to the corrosive public perception that members of Congress are more like the fat cats of Wall Street than they are like the rest of us.”
Pingree was elected in 2008 to represent Maine’s 1st Congressional District. She is running for re-election this year and has led Republican challenger Dean Scontras in recent polls.
“Chellie Pingree’s hypocrisy is simply stunning,” said Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine GOP. “She has made herself out to be a champion of the underclass, but now we see she’s turned into the same ‘Wall Street Fat Cat’ she railed against.”
Added Scontras: “Plain and simple, this is the sort of thing Mainers are tired of — hypocrisy in our elected officials. I continually hear the same refrain across the district: ‘Congress is out of touch.’”
Willy Ritch, Pingree’s spokesman, said the congresswoman has done nothing wrong.
“Some members of Congress have their own planes. That’s not what Chellie was criticizing [in 2006],” he said. “She specifically referred to [legislators] flying on lobbyists’ planes.”
In most instances, Pingree flies commercial and then is reimbursed. If she flies privately, the flight is just that: private.
“These flights are not funded by taxpayer dollars,” Ritch said. “She has traveled with a man who she is in a long-term relationship with. As a couple, why wouldn’t they fly together?”
Sussman, a multimillionaire and CEO of Paloma Partners, a hedge fund company based in Greenwich, Conn., is a longtime supporter of Democratic causes in Maine even prior to his relationship with Pingree.
In 2008, Sussman gave $526,000 to reject a citizens initiative to repeal Maine’s same-sex marriage law. Earlier that year, he donated $100,000 to oppose the repeal of the “soda tax,” which was meant to raise money to support the Dirigo Health program.
In 2003, Sussman made a sizable donation to Casinos No! to help defeat an initiative that would have allowed casinos on tribal lands. Sussman’s first public foray in political donating came in 1996, when he gave nearly $200,000 to support Jonathan Carter’s referendum to ban clear-cutting.
Maine Republicans long have criticized Sussman for contributing tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic state House and Senate races while he was living out of state. In 2008, Sussman and his company gave thousands to Pingree’s campaign.
Since Burklin’s initial story surfaced, there is some question as to whether the plane is owned by Sussman or his firm. The plane is registered to Magic Carpet Enterprises LLC in Ithaca, N.Y., but Ritch said Sussman created the corporation for insurance and liability purposes. Many celebrities do the same thing, he said.
There also have been questions about the residency status of both Pingree and Sussman. According to her spokesman, they live together both in Washington, D.C., and in Maine. Sussman also now lists his primary residence as Maine and pays income taxes in Maine, Ritch said.
Finally, Burklin’s initial blog post and subsequent claims by Maine Republicans have suggested Pingree might be violating ethics laws if she’s using the plane for official business.
“We’ve already gotten a clear opinion from the House Ethics Committee saying there is no problem. We’ll be getting it in writing soon,” Ritch said.
However, McNally with the Maine Republican Party said many questions remain unanswered.
“Chellie Pingree needs to sit down with the people of Maine and explain exactly what is going on here,” McNally said. “The people of Maine deserve to know where their representatives live, at the very least.”