It was a busy weekend last November for the flight crew of BellSouth's corporate jet. Over three days, they crisscrossed the Southeast, ferrying six U.S. senators, two of their wives, a trio of political consultants and two of the company's Washington lobbyists to Republican and Democratic fundraising events.
To charter a comparable Cessna Citation for that three-day itinerary would have cost $40,800, not including food and drinks. The two parties' campaign committees reimbursed BellSouth $8,364.94 for the flights, in line with campaign-finance rules that call for the equivalent of first-class commercial airfare for each traveler.
For members of Congress - its top leaders, in particular - the service is an accepted convenience of immense value in their whirlwind schedules, worth far more than the reimbursements the rules require. They can skip security lines, ignore airline schedules and stretch out in roomy leather seats. For corporations that provide the service, it's a chance to do favors for the powerful and gain influence unavailable to those without air fleets.
Public records and internal company documents obtained by USA TODAY show that over the past four years, BellSouth has flown federal government officials on such political trips about 100 times. The internal records offer rare detail about who goes on the trips and why - information that lawmakers and companies aren't now required to reveal.
This perk for lawmakers is under scrutiny this week as the Senate seeks to rewrite the rules of the influence game in the midst of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., are pushing to curb the cut-rate travel service.
BellSouth's internal documents, covering 2002 through 2005, were provided by Vicki Taylor, who has worked for 15 years as a secretary in BellSouth's Washington lobbying office. Taylor, 53, said she sought out reporters because she was concerned about company practices she believed violated internal expense-account rules. She is now on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey acknowledged the documents were authentic.
Top travelers with the regional telephone company include House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and John Breaux of Louisiana, both now retired.
The lawmakers' campaign committees or the political parties routinely reimbursed the company for first-class airfare - normally a fraction of the market value of the trips - but neither they nor the company are required to disclose anything else. Campaign funds can be used to pay political expenses or costs associated with lawmakers' official duties, such as meetings with constituents, says Kenneth Gross, a campaign-finance lawyer.
BellSouth is one of dozens of large corporations with intense lobbying agendas in Washington that use their corporate jets to curry favor with key lawmakers. BellSouth has agreed to be acquired by AT&T, which was recently purchased by another telecommunications company, SBC. Neither SBC nor AT&T has provided the same level of service on its corporate jets.
FedEx, U.S. Tobacco, Union Pacific, the Texas plaintiff's law firm of Baron & Budd, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, R.J. Reynolds and generic-drug maker Barr Laboratories are among those companies that most frequently whisk members of Congress around the country upon request, according to figures released Monday by PoliticalMoneyLine, which compiles data on money and politics.
In the past five years, federal politicians and political parties reimbursed 286 corporations $3.7 million for 2,154 trips, according to the PoliticalMoneyLine figures.
"You can sit down and have a cocktail and talk casually about a matter, rather than rushing in between meetings on Capitol Hill," says Wright Andrews, a veteran Washington lobbyist. "You are a heavy hitter if you've got a jet."
BellSouth's McCloskey said providing transportation to federal officials "gives us an opportunity to form relationships, to have a long stretch of time to explain issues that are technical and complicated. If it wasn't useful, we wouldn't do it." The company lobbies Congress on issues ranging from broadband to copyrights, international trade and excise taxes on phone service.
Advocates of an ethics overhaul, including McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have called for requiring lawmakers to reimburse companies for the full cost of a charter flight when they hop aboard their jets. That would make the practice so costly it would be tantamount to banning it, says Fred Wertheimer, president of the ethics watchdog group Democracy 21.
McCain and Lieberman plan to offer an amendment during Senate debate that would require politicians to reimburse the full charter rate and disclose details of corporate plane trips. The current rule "provides an end-run of limitations on what corporations can contribute or give as gifts," Lieberman said Monday.
A poll in January found strong public support for ending cut-rate travel by lawmakers on corporate planes. The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll found 72% of Americans support banning the practice, and 21% oppose a ban.
Details about corporate plane use are not normally disclosed. The only way the public can find out about the trips is by combing through campaign-finance reports. That reveals nothing about who went on the trip, where they went or the purpose of the travel.
The practice was spotlighted in the case of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican who resigned his House seat Nov. 28 after pleading guilty to taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Brent Wilkes, founder of the defense company ADCS, flew Cunningham to an Idaho hunting trip on Group W Transportation, his private Lear jet, according to campaign-finance records.
"It's a big perk for members of Congress, which I can assure you is not available to the general public," Wertheimer says. "There is no legitimate rationale for it."
On Friday, Nov. 11, BellSouth's Cessna 560 XL, tail number N404SB, left its Atlanta base and flew to Washington's Dulles Airport to pick up Republican Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Kit Bond of Missouri. Two of the senators' wives and Ward White, a BellSouth lobbyist, were along for the trip, according to a company flight manifest. The trip was arranged by the GOP Senate campaign committee, which like its Democratic counterpart keeps a list of companies that make their planes available.
The group flew to St. Simons Island, Ga., for a weekend retreat at the sumptuous Sea Island resort with members of the party's Senate Council, a club for corporate donors whose political action committees have given at least $5,000. (BellSouth's PAC gave $12,500 to the Republican Senate committee last year.) The party included White in a private dinner Nov. 11 with Bond and Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Warner of Virginia.
While the senators joined contributors and their lobbyists for a weekend of briefings, golf, tennis, skeet and trap shooting, and a guided nature walk, the corporate jet headed back to Washington on Nov. 12 to pick up more senators.
This time, according to the company documents, it was Democrats: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, headed for a party fundraising event near Orlando. They were accompanied by BellSouth lobbyist Broderick Johnson. After dropping them off, the BellSouth jet returned to Georgia, where on Sunday, it picked up Bennett, Crapo and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and lobbyist White for the trip to Washington.
Reid and Cantwell turned to another special interest for the rest of their trip: the Texas law firm of Mikal Watts, which flew them on to Oxford, Miss., for another party fundraiser, according to campaign-finance records. Cantwell took a commercial flight back to Washington, while Reid continued to Dallas on the Watts plane for another money event, then returned to Washington aboard the plane of the Baron & Budd law firm. The law firms did not respond to requests for comment.
Campaign-finance records show the Democratic Senate committee reimbursed Watts $4,510.10 and Baron & Budd $2,836.80. The Texas law firms lobby Congress against limiting the liability lawsuits that are their primary business.
Lawmakers asked about the travel defended their use of corporate planes as a necessity in the fast-paced world of politics.
Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said the practice is essential for top congressional leaders. "It would be impossible to keep the kind of schedule that he does on these trips throughout the country without being able to use these jets every once in a while," Manley said.
Hastert did not respond to calls for comment. As the No. 3 House GOP leader, Blunt has responsibilities to help Republicans get elected and preserve the party's House majority, said spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger. "Private travel enabled him to reach multiple campaign events - many times in remote locations - often in a single day," she wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
Bond's spokesman, Rob Ostrander, said the senator believes that "as long as the practice is not abused and there is appropriate reimbursement, it should remain an option."
Attending political fundraisers was the most common purpose for congressional travelers aboard BellSouth's jet, but not the only purpose. In 2004, the company flew Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards as part of their presidential campaigns; shuttled Sen. John Breaux, D-La., home from his party's convention in Boston; and took Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from New York to the Kennedy family clambake in Hyannis, Mass., the company's records show.
BellSouth also flew Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, to a U.S. Telecom Association meeting in Denver in 2003. Barton is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which controls telecommunications policy. Lott flew home or to Washington with the company on at least four occasions. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., caught a ride to give a speech and attend the Kentucky Derby in 2003.
The most frequent flier with BellSouth in 2002-04 was Hastert, who traveled aboard the company's planes nine times, company documents show. Blunt, the No. 3 House leader, flew eight times, and Lott, who was Senate majority leader in 2002, was aboard six times during that period. A company lobbyist was aboard each time.
The rules that require reimbursement at the first-class commercial ticket rate date back two decades or more, says Scott Thomas, a former member of the Federal Election Commission who advises legal clients on ethics issues. At the time, "there wasn't any good way to track what the actual fair-market charter rate would be," he says, so the commission adopted the rule requiring reimbursement at the first-class rate.
That rationale was made obsolete by the Internet, which makes it easy to look up the cost of a charter flight, Thomas says, but the rules haven't kept up. "It's ripe for reconsideration," he says. At a minimum, there should be greater disclosure of trips, Thomas says.
The demand for convenient travel apparently drives the practice at least as much as corporations' desire to gain a lobbying advantage.
As often as BellSouth transported lawmakers, it turned down even more requests. A company document shows that in 2004, its planes took 28 trips for members of the House and Senate - 18 for Republicans, 10 for Democrats. It turned down requests for an additional 109 trips because planes weren't available.
Two senators turned down for requested trips in 2004 - McCain and Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois - have since emerged as spokesmen for sweeping ethics changes and have voluntarily imposed limits on their own use of corporate planes.
McCain, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, decided late last year to abandon the practice entirely, instead using charter flights when needed. Obama announced in January that he would reimburse the full market value of such flights.
- 192 Technology & Telecommunications