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  Tobacco's Influence Takes Flight in GOP

Tobacco Graphic
By Saundra Torry
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 1998; Page A01

The nation's leading tobacco companies made their corporate jets available to Republican lawmakers and GOP committees for dozens of flights in the past year, according to a report being released today by congressional Democrats.

The tobacco industry provided far more subsidized travel than any other industry, according to an examination of Democratic and Republican campaign finance reports by Democrats on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. The planes took Republican leaders, sometimes in the company of tobacco executives, to destinations as close as New York City and as far away as San Diego. Investigators said they found no reports of Democrats traveling on tobacco planes between January 1997 and the end of May, the period covered by their study.

Much of the travel occurred as the tobacco companies were trying at first to get Congress to approve legislation to give them some protection from mounting lawsuits, and later as the companies successfully lobbied Republican senators to kill that legislation after the lawsuit protection was removed.

While lawmakers and campaign committees must pay the companies the equivalent of first-class airfare to the same destination, private jet travel offers added convenience and luxury. In the case of a destination not served by commercial airlines, travelers pay the "charter rate."

The companies pick up the remaining costs of the flights, which can be tens of thousands of dollars above the price of a first-class ticket, according to the report released by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), one of Congress's leading tobacco foes. Waxman is the Government Reform and Oversight panel's senior Democrat.

Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), chair man of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said in an interview that he sees "nothing wrong" with the travel. It is "another big perk we get," he said. "I don't apologize for it."

The NRCC, Linder said, often arranges such travel with companies when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or other leaders "make a [campaign] swing. . . . It's a matter of getting in and out of three events in three cities" in one day, he said. It couldn't be done by commercial air travel, he said.

Linder said he flew to the Super Bowl in San Diego in January on a plane supplied by one of the tobacco companies. He also flew to a GOP function in Pinehurst, N.C., this summer, he said, on a UST Inc. jet, accompanied by "people from companies" headed to the same event.

According to a tobacco industry source, "Word gets around pretty quick, as to who flies and who doesn't." Members or campaigns, he said, call the company "and say, 'We are doing a trip. Is it possible that you can fly us from point A or X to Y?' " Then, he said, "we decide, yea or nay."

Other industries also provide jet travel to lawmakers, including Democrats, the report said. The health care industry, currently involved in a battle over major legislation on Capitol Hill, was the second-biggest flight provider. Other top providers included the insurance industry, casino gaming interests and travel stores.

According to the report, Republican-controlled entities made 236 payments for travel to corporations during the 17 months of Federal Election Commission disclosures studied -- 84 of them to the tobacco industry. Democratic entities made 23 payments to corporations.

Asked for details of Democratic travel, investigators provided data showing that campaign committees controlled by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) were the biggest Democratic users of corporate jets, paying several companies, including Archer Daniels Midland and Circus Circus, on 19 occasions.

Waxman said he last used a corporate jet to travel to a speech in 1984.

"By far, the biggest single recipient of subsidized travel from the tobacco industry is the NRCC," which paid the industry about $190,000 for travel in 17 months, the report said. Political committees controlled by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) paid the companies for travel on 12 occasions; those controlled by House leaders Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) also reimbursed the industry for travel.

Spokesmen for Lott and DeLay said they comply with all the campaign finance laws; a spokesman for Armey did not return calls.

"Don't you think we ought to be more concerned with people like the Clinton-Gore team who flout current law by illegally taking millions in foreign contributions than by people who obey the law and play by the rules?" asked Lott spokesman John S. Czwartacki.

According to the report, investigators were seeking "to determine the extent of campaign travel by members and committees subsidized by the tobacco industry." They looked at FEC filings for political action committees controlled by 11 top Democratic and GOP congressional leaders.

The system allows corporations to make "stealth contributions" because they provide a "direct benefit" far in excess of what is publicly reported, Waxman said. Instead of having to "schlep around to airports and wait for schedules," he said, a lawmaker can take a corporate jet "whenever he wants . . . at a fraction of the cost of what the trip is really worth."

A great deal about this subsidized travel remains a mystery.

The Democratic staff found that tobacco companies provided planes to Republican entities on 32 dates between Jan. 1, 1997 and May 31 of this year for as many as 84 flights.

Under federal election laws, committees must report only the amount they paid, the date and to whom, but no further details, making it impossible to learn who traveled or the number of flights.

The tobacco companies, the NRCC and several Republican leaders declined last week to provide that information to a reporter. According to the report, the companies also refused Waxman's request for details.

According to the report, Republicans flew on planes supplied by the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying arm; UST; and three cigarette makers, Philip Morris Companies Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.

The tobacco companies in recent years also have been major contributors to the Republicans. Between 1987 and 1997, the industry contributed $13 million to Republican Party committees and about $3 million to Democratic committees, according to a recent study by Public Citizen.

Tobacco company spokesmen said the use of the planes is legal. "We comply with the law and do what we have to do," said John Atwood of UST, which the report said provided the most subsidized travel of any corporation.

"As to who has been flown, where and when, the schedules of public officials are theirs to disclose, not Philip Morris," said Darienne Dennis, a company spokeswoman.

Todd Harris, a spokesman for the NRCC, called Waxman's report "misleading and deceptive" because it is based on payments or "disbursements" for travel by the committees, which may overstate the number of flights. For instance, Harris said, the list shows four separate NRCC "disbursements" to R.J. Reynolds last Jan. 23, which Harris said was for a Super Bowl trip to San Diego.

"That was one trip," he said, which may have been paid for with four checks because "some fly round trip, some fly one-way, some get on at different places."

But Harris declined to say how many people flew and whether they flew one-way or round trip.

"What on earth is Henry Waxman doing, investigating the NRCC with taxpayer money?" Harris asked. "This is pure politics."

Philip M. Schiliro, a Waxman spokesman, said it is "entirely appropriate to investigate the methods the tobacco companies use to influence Congress and the Republican Party," adding that the study sheds light on a "loophole" in the campaign finance laws that is "extraordinarily exploited."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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