Did Rep. Pingree Get Engaged to Beat Ethics Rap?

Chellie Pingree photoThe Maine Republican Party has filed a complaint against Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), for reportedly violating federal election laws by flying to a New York campaign fundraiser in a private jet owned by a corporation controlled by her fiancé.

Video captured by the Maine Watchdog shows Rep. Pingree and her fiancé, billionaire liberal philanthropist S. Donald Sussman, traveling on a $25 million jet which belonged to a Magic Carpet Enterprises, LLC., a corporation owned by Sussman. Records obtained by the watchdog group show that Rep. Pingree flew to an airport in White Plains, NY, where she then drove to a fundraising event in New York City.

The Maine GOP says that the trip appeared to be in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Finance Act of 1971, which bars lawmakers from traveling to campaign events on non-commercial private aircraft.

“Lawbreaking by our elected officials is not something we’re accustomed to in Maine,” said Charlie Webster, Maine Republican Party Chair. “Congresswoman Pingree has repeatedly shown disregard for election law, and needs to be held accountable.”

Rep. Pingree has denied that the incident was in breach of the law, and pointed out a loophole in the rules that allows politicians to travel on non-commercial planes that are owned by family members. The House Ethics Committee cleared Rep. Pingree of wrongdoing in a letter signed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL), which says that Rep. Pingree’s fiancé Sussman is considered a family member.

However, the Maine GOP says that Rep. Pingree only announced her engagement after she was accused of violating ethics rules.

“[S]he’s claiming she’s been engaged for nearly two years now, yet nobody knew about it – not even her press secretary who initially said he was unaware of it,” said Maine GOP spokesman Lance Dutson.

Dutson also said that Rep. Pingree did not give the House Ethics Committee the full details about the ownership of the jet. He said that the congresswoman told the committee the plane was owned by her fiancé, when in reality the aircraft was owned by a company that her fiancé controlled.

“The fiancé status gets her technically out of one House ethics violation, but when she sought opinion from the House Ethics Committee based on this family member status, she didn’t give them the whole story on the ownership of the plane,” said Dutson.

Before becoming a member of congress, Rep. Pingree was president of Common Cause, a government accountability lobbying group, where she pushed for laws that would further restrict the use of private air travel by lawmakers. Critics of Rep. Pingree have said this shows hypocrisy on the part of the congresswoman.

Webster has issued a letter to Common Cause CEO Bob Edgar, asking the group to join the Maine GOP’s complaint against Rep. Pingree.

“Through her actions as a candidate and House member, Congresswoman Pingree has turned her back on the principles of your organization. Her hypocrisy casts a shadow on the sincerity of the work Common Cause has done, and will no doubt give comfort to those who seek to stifle your future efforts,” wrote Webster. “I ask you to join us in our complaint, and make it clear to the American public that Common Cause will not waiver on the principles of government accountability and rule of law.”

Alana Goodman is NLPC’s Capitol Hill Reporter.