When Representative John Boehner, R-Ohio, was elected House majority leader on February 2, he presented himself as a new kind of leader — someone who would rise above doing business as usual, a departure from the aggressive tactics and ethical tight-rope walking of his predecessor, Tom "The Hammer" DeLay.
But the Center for Public Integrity’s examination of Boehner’s political financial activities during his 15 years on Capitol Hill indicates that the way he does business might not be so different from DeLay.
While Boehner may not be a hammer, he has been a highflyer.
Federal Election Commission records and House travel disclosure forms reviewed by the Center indicate that Boehner used his leadership PAC “Freedom Project” to build a network of political and business relationships not unlike DeLay’s own.
The Center analysis found that Boehner:
- has taken dozens of trips on private jets owned by corporations that have legislative interests before Congress
- has accepted scores of privately sponsored trips (often categorized as having fact-finding or educational purposes) to some of the world’s premier golf spots and foreign locales
- has hosted many high-end fund-raisers to wine and dine potential donors and Republican colleagues
- has donated millions of dollars to election campaigns of fellow Republicans.
All of these activities are legal — candidates can raise money independent of campaigns, direct funds to colleagues and bankroll certain political activities through their leadership PACs. But they also can be a means to help congressional leaders elevate their careers and enjoy trappings of success that a government salary normally doesn’t provide.
While Boehner has benefited from Freedom Project, his staffers say that his rise to majority leader was aided more by his ability to be a team player than his PAC spending.
“Members appreciate the fact that they have a leader who listens to their concerns and works within the framework of the team to achieve success,” Boehner press secretary Kevin Madden told the Center.
Corporate frequent flyer
Since Boehner came to Washington D.C., in 1991 from West Chester, Ohio, he has frequently traveled on private jets owned by corporations with a financial stake in congressional affairs. According to Center for Public Integrity research, Boehner flew at least 45 times on corporate planes from June 2001 through September 2005. The companies on whose jets he flew include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (15 times), UST Inc. (seven), Swisher International Inc. (seven), FedEx (five), and Sallie Mae (four).
Travel by corporate jet is luxurious and very costly, but no matter how much the actual expense, members of Congress are required by law to pay only first-class commercial rates for these private flights. In addition, they are not required to disclose who accompanied them, even if it is a lobbyist or company official.
In the new majority leader’s case, the trips were paid for by the same Boehner campaign and leadership PAC funds to which R.J. Reynolds, Sallie Mae and other corporations contributed. According to Federal Election Commission records, from 2001 to 2005, R.J. Reynolds’ PAC and company vice president John Fish donated more than a combined $30,000 to Freedom Project. Over the same period, Freedom Project paid R.J. Reynolds more than $11,000 for use of the company’s jet, while reporting additional “in-kind contributions” from RJR totaling more than $14,000, ranging from $171.34 to $2,738.79 a trip.
Some members of Congress say the current system lacks fairness and transparency.
“If members travel on corporate jets or other charter flights, they should pay the full cost of the charter ticket and disclose who owns or leases the plane, who else is on board and why a commercial flight was not used.” — Representative David Price, D-N.C
“If members travel on corporate jets or other charter flights, they should pay the full cost of the charter ticket and disclose who owns or leases the plane, who else is on board and why a commercial flight was not used,” said Representative David Price, D-N.C., who has co-sponsored legislation that, among other reforms, would require members to account for non-commercial flights at full cost.
The system’s supporters, however, say the practice is expedient.
“First and foremost, there is nothing illegal or wrong about flying on corporate aircraft according to FEC rules,” Freedom Project consultant Chris Singerling told the Center. “Logistically, to get him from point A to point B and not be dictated by the commercial airlines in terms of departure time is a much more efficient way to travel.”
For their part, R.J. Reynolds officials defended offering use of their corporate jet to politicians such as Boehner.
“We’re not doing anything that’s different than what anyone else does. There is nothing unique or different about this operation,” John Singleton, the company’s communications director, told the Center. “It’s critical for us to be able to defend our industry and product."
Dispute over ‘educational’ travel
Boehner’s travel perks were not limited to corporate-jet flights. Through his congressional office, he accepted 42 privately sponsored trips from January 2000 to December 2005. Among them were trips to such foreign locales as Edinburgh, Venice, Brussels and Barcelona, as well as to golfing hotspots Boca Raton, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz.
Records show Boehner took approximately six months of sponsored travel, only nine days of which he listed as being “at personal expense.” Traveling with his wife in most cases, he was treated to more than $160,000 worth of food, lodging, transportation and miscellaneous expenditures. Businesses footing the bill included the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CSX Corporation and the Sallie Mae Foundation.
Boehner has been a proponent of such trips, noting their educational value.
“We can’t lock members up in a cubbyhole here in Washington and never let them see what’s going on around the country and around the world. Members need to be educated, they need to be kept up to speed on what’s happening, and these trips, to a large extent, help educate members,” he told Fox News Sunday in a February 5 interview.
“He still believes that,” Kevin Madden, Boehner’s press secretary, told the Center in an interview for this article. “Private travel often relieves a burden on the taxpayer” from having to have come to Washington D.C.
Boehner hasn’t been the only one in his office to reap the benefits of sponsored travel. Over the past five years, he has approved travel for dozens of staffers from his congressional office and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which he chaired from 2001 until he became majority leader. Center research found that these staffers accepted more than 150 privately sponsored trips to locations such as Japan and Europe worth more than $200,000.
Madden defended this practice as well, citing the educational merits.
“They [the trips] are perfectly legal and reported,” the press secretary said, “and they are done in a manner that educates staffers on the issues they are working on.”
Critics, however, argue that any such sponsored travel raises ethical red flags.
“If some trip is really worthwhile, members should be paying for it themselves,” Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., told the Center.
Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, also disputes the trips’ stated objective.
“Very rarely are these trips for fact-finding or educational purposes,” Holman said in an interview, adding that sponsoring travel often is a way for lobbyists and special interests to gain undue “influence” on legislators.
“The message is exactly what America already thinks of Congress after Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, and that is ‘business as usual,’” he said.
Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Boehner’s only higher-up in the House, also has criticized the general practice, addressing the issue in remarks during a January 17 news conference on lobbying reform legislation.
“We must ban privately sponsored travel in the House of Representatives,” Hastert said at the news conference. “This body considers legislation that affects people across this country that cannot always travel to Washington to petition their government. Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it.”
According to Madden, the new majority leader and the speaker already have discussed their differing views.
“They had an open and constant dialogue on the issue” at a recent Republican retreat, Boehner’s spokesman said. “[They] essentially took an inventory of what members wanted to see done to make the system more transparent.”
Leadership PAC picks up the tab
While Boehner has received steep discounts on his airfare, his leadership PAC has spent generously on fund-raising and other political activities. While on Capitol Hill, he has picked up large tabs for restaurant bills and golf outings for his Republican colleagues in Congress — and made large contributions to their campaigns as well.
According to FEC records covering 1997 through 2005, Boehner’s Freedom Project donated more than $2.83 million to various campaign and political action committees representing 249 candidates. In his efforts to help his fellow Republicans, Boehner even offered his Freedom Project credit card to cover other candidates’ gas money. From September 2002 through December 2005, Boehner spent more than $3,200 to fuel, literally, the campaign and leadership committees of 39 members of Congress.
Freedom Project officials lauded Boehner’s generosity to his fellow Republicans, denying that the donations were made to buy support.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on making sure the money gets back out the door to candidates we want to support,” said Singerling, his leadership PAC consultant. “Helping out our fellow candidates has been our primary goal from day one, and we’ve always tried to run our operation that way.”
Public Citizen’s Holman challenged that characterization, asserting that the transactions are merely meant to foster political relationships.
“[Leadership PACs] are an abomination of ethics in Congress,” Holman said. “The whole point of a leadership PAC is to ensure the loyalty of others in Congress. Boehner played his PAC exactly the way it was meant to be played.”
Boehner’s PAC expenditures extend beyond simply funding his GOP colleagues’ committees. FEC records show that two of the biggest recipients of his political dollars have been the restaurant and golfing industries.
Freedom Project paid more than $119,000 for golf-outing fund-raisers from March 2003 through the end of 2005. In addition, from January 2001 through August 2005, the leadership PAC also spent more than $87,000 on food, beverages and fund-raisers at Sam & Harry’s Restaurant, one of several favorites for power brokers in the nation’s capital.
Other Freedom Project expenditures include: approximately $25,000 for the services of Duck Soup, the “unofficial band of the PGA Tour”; more than $40,000 spent over two nights at Hard Rock Cafe in Washington D.C.; more than $2,700 for “event gifts” from NIKE USA Inc.; and more than $5,500 at the ’70s retro dance club Polly Esther’s.
Singerling did not contest the expenses, saying that when it comes to leadership PACs, you have to spend money to raise money.
“We did not create the current fund-raising climate in Washington,” he said. “If you’re going to have successful events, you have to have events with face time with John — either at a small dinner or a golf tournament … It’s the best way for us to raise money.”
Importance of fund-raising
How much of a role Boehner’s fund-raising for himself and his fellow Republicans played in his winning the majority leader post is up for debate.
His press secretary maintains that fund-raising is only one factor in the congressman’s success.
“The most common thread in Majority Leader [Boehner’s life], professionally and personally, is the commitment to the principle of team work,” Madden said. “His first instinct is to listen, his second instinct is to lead.”
Celia Viggo Wexler, vice president for advocacy of the public interest group Common Cause, offered a more cynical viewpoint.
“Essentially, now in Congress there is this notion that if you want to rise to the top you have to raise a lot of money and give a lot of money to your colleagues,” she said.
Boehner himself has never shied away from his reputation as a big political spender.
As he told the Committee on House Administration in July 1999, “my name happens to look like, ‘Beaner,’ ‘Bonner,’ ‘Boner.’ … Nobody knew who I was, and if I wasn’t able to raise more money, to dip into my own pocket, to spend more than what they did, I would have had no chance of being competitive in the race.”