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Fliers beware: House Ethics issues a refresher on private plane travel

Ethics Committee says it has received ‘numerous inquiries’ on the topic

The House Ethics Committee released a memo Wednesday reminding lawmakers and staff of rules for travel on private planes. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The House Ethics Committee released a memo Wednesday reminding lawmakers and staff of rules for travel on private planes. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Back by popular demand: House Ethics rules on private plane usage.

The House Ethics Committee released a memo Wednesday reminding lawmakers and staff of rules for travel on private planes.

“The Committee has received numerous inquiries regarding travel on non-commercial aircraft,” said the memo.

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Under the House gift rules, a member is allowed to travel on a private plane if they pay or reimburse the donor for the travel. But there are strict restrictions on candidates and campaigners traveling on private aircraft.

The House Ethics memo advises members to check with them before doing any travel on non-commercial aircraft.

“The circumstances under which Members and staff are permitted to accept a flight on a noncommercial aircraft are very fact specific, and you are encouraged to contact the Committee to discuss your particular circumstance,” says the memo.

Former Rep. Jim Renacci came under scrutiny last year when it came to light that he used a strip club owner’s private plane to travel between campaign events. Renacci reported travel on the plane of Don Ksiezyk, owner of the Peek-a-Boo Club in Cleveland as an in-kind donation, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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A House Ethics probe into Renacci ended when he left Congress in December. 

Members are allowed to accept flights on private planes offered in their personal capacity by a friend or another lawmaker, as long as they pay for it.

In the days leading up to the 2018 Senate vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte offered use of his private plane to Sen. Steve Daines in case he needed to vote in the morning and walk his daughter Annie down the aisle for her wedding in Bozeman, Montana on the same night. There aren’t direct commercial flights between Washington and Bozeman.

Daines didn’t end up needing the favor, but the arrangement would have been within ethics rules as long as he paid Gianforte for the trip.

Travel on a friend’s private jet was also at the heart of criminal charges filed against Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., in 2015. A jury at the end of 2017 deadlocked on charges accusing Menendez of accepting bribes in the form of free travel and contributions that helped his 2012 re-election, and the judge in the case later ordered an acquittal on the most serious charges.

But the Senate’s ethics committee “severely admonished” Menendez in 2018, saying he violated Senate rules by accepting the flights and not including them on his annual financial. After Menendez’s re-election in November, the committee said he had complied with its requirement that he reimburse his friend for the trips.

Members are also permitted to accept travel on a non-commercial aircraft owned by a federal, state, or local government. So a delegation could fly on a state-owned plane to an area impacted by natural disaster along with the governor and state officials.

Members and staff are allowed to take private flights “Point A to Point A,” according to the memo. That means that things like test flights of a new aircraft in a lawmaker’s district are not considered a gift under House rules.

In 2013, the House amended its restrictions on the use of private aircraft to conform to existing rules in the Senate. The changes allow members to pay their share of a charter flight with either taxpayer or campaign funds. It also gave the chairman and ranking member of the Ethics Committee authority to jointly waive this rule, citing extraordinary circumstances such as emergencies or in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

The first restrictions on private aircraft travel were put into place in 2007 — a key plank of the ethics overhaul swept through on the heels of the corruption scandal involving superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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Herb Jackson contributed to this report.


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