Once is coincidence, twice is happenstance, an aphorism Sen. Mary Landrieu rather would not hear but who invited it by self-reporting yet another campaign funding violation, and proffering an explanation for it that doesn’t quite hold water.
Just days ago, Landrieu’s office admitted a humiliating incident that it wrongly billed its taxpayer-paid office account for campaign travel expenses involving chartering a plane, a consequence of trying to submit a certain campaign image to voters. Its defense was that a simple clerical error had been made – despite the dubious nature of the claim and even as the apparent practice of the vendor is to send her office the bills and then it sorts them out.
But now another instance, in some ways even more interesting, has popped up. Landrieu’s office now says it will reimburse out of the campaign account at least part of a $5,700 charter bill for the Shreveport to Dallas leg that also included a leg from New Orleans on Sep. 22, 2013. Flying into Shreveport was on official business during the weekend, but the next morning she had to head back to Washington. So she took a charter flight from Shreveport to Dallas where she could catch a commercial flight the next day, but only after she engaged in some fundraising activity there before leaving.
Senate rules allow for interspersing non-official business with official business and paying for it all with taxpayer dollars so long as the non-official portion comprises less than 15 percent of the reason for the trip (Federal Election Commission rules on campaign use are more stringent.). Further, as her office argued, since there are no direct flights from Shreveport to Washington, it could be reasonable to infer that since she must travel to Dallas in order to get back to Washington that this leg also could be construed as part of official travel, and therefore it didn’t really need to report this as a campaign expense, but was doing so out of caution.
Except that when analyzed this interpretation doesn’t hold water. Landrieu did not “have” to go to Dallas. Using this day of publication as an example – meaning a booking is done two days before the flight – from Shreveport Regional to any Washington airport there are 40 available flights and of them only 15 go through Dallas-Fort Worth International. The remainder go through Houston-Bush International or Hartsfield International (Atlanta). Of the DFW ones, one is at 6:10 AM and a couple of others in the mid-morning – plenty of time to get to a later morning fundraiser.
But the larger point is that this wasn’t a matter of she was going to Dallas anyway to get to D.C., so she might as well have a fundraiser on an enforced layover. She could have gone other routes (9 of which left before 9 AM and would have gotten her into D.C. between noon and 3 PM). The only compelling reason instead of spending the night in Shreveport rather than to go to Dallas was a fundraiser. And if you won’t go commercial, why not drive the 190 miles and, after considering airport check ins and outs, spend only an extra hour in travel?
The facts are, Dallas had a fundraiser, Landrieu didn’t want to lose beauty sleep to drive over late Sunday night or early morning, and she didn’t want to wait to fly commercially to get there, so she charted a plane and hit up taxpayers, when she could have just flown straight through to D.C. and more conveniently by avoiding Dallas. That unambiguously means the trip there was for a fundraiser and from the start should have been paid out of the campaign account. This reversal now is not out of “abundance of caution,” it’s trying to justify an improper decision in the first place and presenting a solution in the hopes that people will forget about the lapse.
Which does not seem to be working, as now Landrieu has ordered a review of her entire 18 years of travel. The strategy here is to assert a clean bill of health to give credence to the narrative she desperately wants to establish that these recent errors are uncharacteristic to try to head off the growing perception that none of this was accidental. Adding another incident of misuse of taxpayer dollars that makes her behavior look more and more habitual, makes more and more credible the theory that Landrieu knew she’d be looking at an expensive reelection battle – confirmed now that she has fallen behind main challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy in money available on which to campaign and was outraised by him last quarter – and gave orders to pay by other means campaign bills as much as possible, even if illegal.
Even if that reckless disregard of the people’s money or conscious attempt to gain an unethical advantage over her opponents is not what actually happened, these incidents present plenty of ammunition to voters to wonder that if Landrieu has so many problems with her staff handling money – twice in two months – how can she be trusted to handle taxpayer funds? Rest assured opponents contesting her reelection will ask this question time and time again until the election is settled.