A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pelosi’s Party Plane?


Q: Has Nancy Pelosi spent $100,000 on food, booze and "partying" during her air travel?

A: No. Pelosi’s congressional delegations do eat well and drink pricey alcohol. But the costs are not as high as critics claim, and they’re comparable to those of her Republican predecessor, Dennis Hastert.

FULL QUESTION

I have received e-mails with links to Web sites that report that Nancy Pelosi has spent $101,000 at taxpayers’ expense on booze and food while traveling by plane back and forth to California from Washington, D.C. I haven’t been able to find anything that debunks this. Do you know if it is true?

FULL ANSWER

The conservative group Judicial Watch obtained 2,000 pages of receipts and expense reports for speaker travel under the Freedom of Information Act. The group says these demonstrate Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s “boorish demands for military travel” are “more about partying than anything else.” Based on that, the conservative WorldNetDaily ran an eye-popping but inaccurate headline that said, "Taxpayers pay $101,000 for Pelosi’s in-flight ‘food, booze.’ " Claims of Pelosi’s extravagant liquor bills spread from there through any number of blogs and chain e-mails, which sometimes attribute the in-flight costs of entire delegations to Pelosi alone on her flights between Washington and her district in California.

But Judicial Watch is wrong in several respects. Our examination of the documents reveals that Judicial Watch overstated the amount of money spent on “in-flight expenses” for Pelosi’s congressional delegations, or CODELs. Furthermore, Judicial Watch, a watchdog group that describes itself as "conservative," failed to compare Pelosi’s costs with those of the previous speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert, even though the Air Force handed over documents covering CODELs that he led, as well as those led by Pelosi. And the fact is that Hastert’s travel, as represented in Judicial Watch’s own documents, was comparable to Pelosi’s.

  • Claim: Pelosi spent the Air Force’s money on travel provisions for herself and her family members.
    Fact: Both Pelosi and Hastert CODELs billed the Air Force for some expenses. Air Force funds are never used for spouses or family members.

    The general complaint from Judicial Watch and those picking up the story is that Pelosi spent Air Force money on travel, both for herself and for members of her family. This is partly true. The Air Force pays for some of what members of Congress eat and drink on CODELs — at least, as long as they’re in U.S. territory. Lt. Col. Almarah Belk of the office of the secretary of defense told us that the Air Force covers food and beverage expenses while the CODEL is on U.S. soil, and until members reach their first overseas location. After that, members of Congress reimburse the Air Force for their meals both in-flight and on the ground, either from their State Department per diem or out of pocket. Spouses’ and family members’ meals and lodgings are always reimbursed. Among the Judicial Watch documents is an accounting for each CODEL, showing how much money the Air Force laid aside in advance (often much more than the trip actually cost), how much was spent, how much was collected later, and how much was returned to the Air Force.

  • Claim: Pelosi spent over $100,000 on food and alcohol.
    Fact: Her delegations did spend that amount, but not just on food and booze. (And Pelosi doesn’t drink.)

    WorldNetDaily said that Pelosi spent more than $100,000 for "food [and] booze." That’s false. The total includes expenses other than "food and booze," though it’s certainly true that international CODELs routinely show receipts for hundreds of dollars worth of top-shelf alcohol — brands like Maker’s Mark, Courvoisier, Grey Goose and Bombay Sapphire. Pelosi herself does not drink alcohol, her staff told us, but she’s not the only member of Congress on these trips. The ones who do drink are well-supplied.

    The documents also show receipts for hundreds of dollars in food purchases, often from the bulk store Sam’s Club or from the Andrews Air Force Base commissary. (It’s worth noting that, according to Pelosi’s staff, food and beverages left over after a trip are stored for future travel.) Snack items usually include cereals, fruit, chips and candy. Most of the CODELs in Judicial Watch’s sheaf of documents do not provide itemized receipts for the food used to make in-flight meals, but the one that does (a Pelosi CODEL from February 2009) lists provisions including tilapia, lasagna and fancy cakes.

    Judicial Watch calculated that Pelosi’s CODELs spent precisely $101,429.14 over two years for what it calls “in-flight expenses." We asked Judicial Watch for an explanation of its accounting, and the group sent us a spreadsheet that covered three of the nine Pelosi CODELs represented in its documents, plus 47 speaker shuttles to and from Pelosi’s home district. From the three CODELs it covers, it’s clear that Judicial Watch is counting as “in-flight expenses” any non-reimbursable Air Force expenditure besides transportation costs. That category actually includes all non-plane costs of the trip, including baggage fees, meeting room rentals and refreshments, and, frequently, good-will lapel pins — as well as meals, ground transportation and lodging in U.S. territory.

  • Claim: Pelosi’s use of military funds constitutes a “scandal.”
    Fact: Whether or not Pelosi’s CODEL spending is considered outrageous, it tracks with spending for Hastert’s delegations.

    Judicial Watch is calling this “Pelosi’s Air Force Scandal.” The group may well feel scandalized, but the truth is that Hastert’s spending was much the same — a fact Judicial Watch overlooked. We did our own apples-to-apples comparison, leaving out speaker shuttles (which are not congressional delegations) and counting all of the CODELs in Judicial Watch’s documents. By our count, the nine Pelosi CODELs represented in the documents spent about $110,000, after the Air Force was reimbursed for expenditures for which it wasn’t responsible (such as overseas meals and lodging and spouses’ expenses). The eight Hastert CODELs spent about $73,000. The costs per official participant were remarkably similar — about $310 for Pelosi CODELs and $302 for Hastert CODELs. Counting in the cost of military air travel, the nine Pelosi CODELs cost $2.4 million. The eight Hastert CODELs cost $2.7 million, not including the air travel costs for one trip, which were not available.

    The liquor receipts for Pelosi and Hastert CODELs also are markedly similar. There’s some variation in particular brands — we never saw a Hastert CODEL stock Starbucks coffee liqueur, as Pelosi’s April 2007 trip did. But international CODELs routinely show receipts for hundreds of dollars worth of top-shelf alcohol, as well as beer and wine.

    Two Hastert CODELs had final stops in Hawaii, where the Air Force was responsible for food and lodging costs, and Judicial Watch’s records are full of lodging, food and drink receipts for the members. One receipt for a Morton’s Steakhouse dinner shows eight congressmen and their wives running up a nearly $1,600 bill, with $844 listed as "chargeable to AF" (the rest of the bill was reimbursed because spouses’ meals are not covered). Drinks included a 12-year Glenfidditch scotch, four Mai Tais and five glasses of wine, and food included $192 worth of crab cakes. The documents also show big dining bills for one domestic Pelosi CODEL – including a dinner for 98 people that came to more than $10,000, with $3,807 of it charged to the Air Force.

  • Claim: One Pelosi CODEL went over budget by $5,500.
    Fact: This is true. The rest cost far less than the amount advanced by the Air Force.

    Judicial Watch is right when it says that one Pelosi-led CODEL ended up costing more than the advance taken out by the Air Force. The group writes: “The Department of Defense advanced a CODEL of 56 members of Congress and staff $60,000 to travel to Louisiana and Mississippi July 19-22, 2008, to ‘view flood relief advances from Hurricane Katrina.’ The three-day trip cost the U.S. Air Force $65,505.46, exceeding authorized funding by $5,505.46.” We find these figures to be correct. On other occasions, Pelosi’s CODELs came in between $4,005 and $22,671 under budget, and the rest of the amount advanced was returned to the Air Force.

    None of the Hastert CODELs covered in the documents cost more than the advance. Hastert returned between $1,614 and $15,133.

  • Claim: Pelosi led 103 congressional delegations, and brought her family on 31 of them.
    Fact: Pelosi has been on 12 international CODELs and a “handful” of domestic ones, not 103. Judicial Watch also gives data for about 60 shuttles back to her home district in California, of which family members traveled on 21.

    Judicial Watch makes claims about Pelosi’s 103 CODELs, but its documents only cover 17 delegations – nine led by Pelosi, and eight by her predecessor, Dennis Hastert. Of those nine, Pelosi’s husband traveled with her on five CODELs, reimbursing the Air Force for his costs. There are more Pelosi CODELs than the documents show — Pelosi’s office tells us she’s been on 12 international CODELs and a handful of domestic ones since becoming speaker. But that’s still far short of 103, and Judicial Watch offers no supplementary evidence to back up that number, which its own documents contradict.

    Judicial Watch seems to have conflated CODELs with speaker shuttles, where the speaker travels to his or her home district. Since 2001, the speaker has been authorized to use military transport for shuttles, as we explained in an earlier piece when Judicial Watch erroneously claimed that Pelosi used a jumbo jet for these trips. Even that doesn’t bring the total to 103 — the documents Judicial Watch provides cover about 60 Pelosi shuttles and 120 Hastert shuttles. According to the Judicial Watch records, Pelosi had family members accompany her on 21 trips back to California, including 14 where she traveled with her children and two where she brought her grandchildren. The family members traveled on a reimbursable basis, paying the military back for their travel and food. Hastert’s wife also accompanied him on CODELs and speaker shuttles, and the same rules applied.

Members of Congress eat and drink better than most of us do during air travel, to be sure. Expensive alcohol is available on CODELs and the snacks are nothing to sneeze at either. We take no position on whether that’s an appropriate use of Air Force funds. Judicial Watch clearly does, which is its prerogative. But Judicial Watch fails to note that this practice is both bipartisan and of long standing. Its own documents show that Pelosi’s Republican predecessor’s CODELs also provided snacks, alcohol and meals to participating representatives, who were often accompanied by their spouses. If Judicial Watch disapproves of the menus on CODEL flights, its gripe is with Congress and the Air Force, not only with the current speaker. 

–Jess Henig

Sources

Judicial Watch. "Judicial Watch Uncovers New Documents Detailing Pelosi’s Use of Air Force Aircraft." 28 Jan 2010.

Unruh, Bob. "Taxpayers pay $101,000 for Pelosi’s in-flight ‘food, booze.’" WorldNet Daily. 29 Jan 2010.

Judicial Watch. "Nancy Pelosi — Air Force Documents." Accessed 3 Mar 2010.

Interview with Drew Hammill, 8 Feb 2010.

Interview with Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, 1 Mar 2010.