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Politicians are frequent fliers on corporate jets

Virginia Sen. George Allen, a potential presidential candidate, recently boarded a corporate jet that flew him to the Republican Southern Leadership Conference in Memphis and back to Washington the following day. Despite the availability of commercial flights, Allen says he had no other alternative but to fly on a corporate-owned jet that weekend.

“All I got to say,” he told NBC News, “is the reason I do it is I have a very busy schedule and need to get to a lot of different places.”

Allen's staff said the Republican senator needed to use the private jet — owned by a successful Virginia corporation — to get back to Washington in time for a press dinner and an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the next day. Allen spoke at the Memphis GOP conference early Saturday morning and departed Memphis for Washington on the corporate jet at 11:13 a.m.

But NBC found two commercial flights that would have gotten him back to Washington in time for his dinner. A commercial U.S. Airways flight would have left Memphis at 12:30 p.m., bringing him into Dulles at 3:32 p.m. A Northwest Airlines flight would have departed Memphis at 2:17 p.m. and arrived at National Airport in Washington at 5:17 p.m.

The owner of the jet is Glade Knight, the CEO of Apple Hospitality, a real estate investment firm from Richmond, Va. Knight tells NBC that Allen’s campaign staff called and asked to use his aircraft. “It was really to accommodate their needs, which I was pleased to do. And I think he’s a terrific person,” Knight says of Allen. “If it will help him, I’m in favor of it, and it certainly complies with the laws.”

Reimbursement ‘won't pay for ... flight’
The senator reimbursed the firm the equivalent of first-class airfare for himself, his wife and aides, a total of $3,597. “That won’t pay for the cost of the flight,” acknowledges Knight. “Absolutely not.” In fact, charter operators say that the actual cost of a similar charter flight would have been about $15,000, more than four times what Allen paid.

Allen’s campaign staff points out that Apple Hospitality did not have a lobbyist on the flight to or from Memphis — something that is common practice with many other corporations. But an NBC News investigation of hundreds of congressional financial disclosure forms reveals that Allen used corporate jets 39 times in the last two years.

He is not alone. Access to corporate jets at bargain-basement prices is among Congress' greatest perks, and it’s all entirely legal.

“This is a big-time abuse,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a congressional watchdog group. “It’s like members of Congress have their own private little air force.”

Among some of Congress’s most frequent fliers: Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, has taken 94 corporate flights over the last five years; Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., 104 flights; and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., 114 flights.

Many requests turned down
Corporations say they do not actively solicit the use of their planes by members of Congress and argue that they actually turn down far more requests than they accommodate.

According to internal BellSouth documents, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called the company on Jan. 26, 2004, for instance, and asked if it had a plane available to fly him, his wife and two sons to the Super Bowl in Houston. BellSouth did not have a crew available and had a policy against flying children on its corporate jet. Frist kept looking and called Union Pacific, the giant railroad firm. Union Pacific officials tell NBC News they then flew the senator to Houston as requested.

Frist’s counterpart, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, also recently flew on a corporate jet. He flew on a jet owned by the MGM/Mirage casino firm to get to a Democratic dinner in Salt Lake City.

Rep. Tom Delay twice used jets owned by Stanford Financial to make court appearances in Texas. The financial-services company has provided jet service for the congressman at least 14 other times since 2001. The tobacco company RJ Reynolds also flew Delay to a court appearance in Texas.

But the company has no qualms about the practice, says Tommy Payne, RJ Reynolds’ chief lobbyist. “It’s legal, reportable. We report it. We don’t apologize for it,” he says. The company says it has flown about 40 members of Congress on about 100 flights since 2001.

“Companies are providing very substantial financial favors for members of Congress,” says Wertheimer, the government ethics expert.

Some lobbyists question practice
Even some seasoned lobbyists see a problem. “Paying a first-class fare for a charter flight just doesn’t seem to pass my smell test,” says Wright Andrews, former president of the League of American Lobbyists.

Federal Election Commission records indicate that more than 200 companies, including NBC's parent company, General Electric, have provided jets to politicians. Why do they do it? To gain access and perhaps even help on critical business before Congress.

Many companies put a lobbyist on the jet to get face time with the politician. “We always put someone from BellSouth on the plane, usually a lobbyist,” a BellSouth spokesman tells NBC. “After all, this is quality time,” adds former FEC official and congressional ethics expert Kenneth Gross. “The (congressional) member has no place to go unless he walks on the plane with a parachute.”The Senate recently voted to disclose more about these flights, but not to stop them or force members to pay more for this high-flying perk.

Editor's note:
A number of viewers/readers have asked why our Tuesday night investigative story on the use of corporate jets by members of Congress featured six Republicans and only one Democrat.

Our story was driven strictly by the numbers. We looked at an equal number of high-ranking Democrats and Republicans now in Congress and counted the number of flights taken on corporate jets over the last 5 years.  What we found is that, among current members, the top fliers were mostly Republicans. The top three we mentioned had almost 100 flights or more. Sen. Harry Reid, the top Democrat in our survey, had 37 flights.  Here are the numbers:

(1) Sen. Trent Lott = 114 flights
(2) Rep. Roy Blunt = 104 flights
(3) Rep. Oxley = 94 flights
(4) Rep. Tom DeLay = 65 flights
(5) Sen. George Allen = 39 flights
(6) Sen. Harry Reid = 37 flights
(7) Sen. Bill Frist = 34 flights

We derived these figures by checking filings by individual Senate/House members and leadership PAC records. We culled these records from the Federal Election Commission. However, because members of Congress are allowed to report so few details, the FEC records are vague and it is difficult to decipher whether flights are on corporate jets (at reduced rates) or on regular charter flights. To ensure accuracy, we provided each individual congressional office with our list of flights to make sure that they were precise.

Why are more Republicans using private jets? One reason may be that they have controlled Congress for 12 years. If Democrats had controlled Congress, I suspect we would see much higher numbers for many key Democrats than we found this time.  Also, some Democrats who heavily used corporate jets--such as Sen. John Edwards--are no longer in Congress.