U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree says criticism of her use of corporate jets is a politically motivated attack on her personal life.
The Democrat responded publicly for the first time Sunday to election-year charges that she traveled on the private jet owned by her fiance, billionaire Wall Street financier S. Donald Sussman. A conservative website says Pingree has spoken out in the past against members of Congress flying on corporate jets.
Pingree said in a Sunday interview with the Bangor Daily News that it is her third campaign in which the opposition has tried to make an issue of her personal relationship with Sussman.
“You don’t pick who you fall in love with,” she said. “My own values have never changed. I’m no different now than I was before.”
According to the congresswoman, the fact that she was essentially put under video surveillance by conservative blog MaineWatchdog.org “crosses a line.”
“It’s the kind of thing people find annoying and invasive and not what campaigns should be,” Pingree said. “When people spend their time stalking a candidate and trying to spread rumors and be very invasive — it’s just not the way we do things in politics in Maine.”
On Monday afternoon, her communications director gave the Bangor Daily News a copy of the letter from the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that gave the congresswoman permission to accept flights on an aircraft privately owned by her fiance.
The Sept. 24 letter, signed by chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of California and ranking Republican member Jo Bonner of Alabama, explained that House rules specify that Pingree may accept a gift from Sussman, just as any member could from a relative. Normally, members are not allowed to except gifts, but there is an exception for relatives — including fiances.
“The gift rule does not impose a limit on the dollar value or frequency of gifts that may be accepted under this exception,” the letter states. “Accordingly, a House Member, officer, or employee may accept an unlimited number of gifts, of any dollar value, from the individual’s fiance. The exception would permit the acceptance of unlimited gifts of transportation, including travel by private aircraft, where the donor is the fiance of the recipient.”
But members of the Maine Republican Party were not convinced by the letter and questioned the ethics behind Pingree’s decision to fly on her fiance’s private plane.
Maine GOP communications director Lance Dutson on Monday pointed out that the plane is not registered to Sussman, personally, and therefore should not fall under the “relative” exception. The plane is registered to Magic Carpet Enterprises LLC in Ithaca, N.Y. Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said Sussman created the corpo-ration for insurance and liability purposes.
In the past few days, GOP members have blasted 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.
“Chellie Pingree’s hypocrisy is simply stunning,” Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine GOP, said last week. “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.”
Republicans on Monday stepped up their criticism of Pingree, saying she and Sussman live a “lavish lifestyle, complete with private jets, personal chefs, and luxury tropical getaways.”
The GOP also has raised questions about Sussman’s residency status.
But Gov. John Baldacci’s spokesman David Farmer said Monday evening that Sussman is a Maine resident and pays income taxes here. Sussman has never struck the governor as someone who would play fast and loose with ethics, Farmer said.
“He considers Mr. Sussman a good friend,” Farmer said. “He’s described him as intelligent, thoughtful and committed to Maine, as someone who wants to see Maine do well.”
The two men have worked together around policy issues especially related to conservation and the environment.
“In all their dealings, the governor never saw anything that was for personal gain,” Baldacci said. “It was all public policy for the good of the state.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.