In early February, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved legislation that would turn control of America’s air traffic control system over to a nonprofit corporation run by the aviation industry, essentially privatizing the system. Airlines for America (A4A), the trade association representing the major airlines that is a top backer of the bill, praised the committee’s actions.
A week later, A4A’s President, Nick Calio, was in Miami Beach, FL, relaxing around a pool with the person most responsible for the legislation’s success, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), the committee’s chairman. Joining them was Rep. Shuster’s girlfriend, Shelley Rubino, who also happens to be a vice president at A4A. The lounging caught the attention of others in town for Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s (R-FL) annual fundraiser, who told Politico that Rep. Shuster and the airline lobbyists “looked as if they were traveling in a pack.” According to Rep. Shuster’s spokesperson, the chairman’s leadership political action committee (PAC), Bill PAC, paid for his trip, not any outside group.
The weekend trip to Miami was hardly the first time Rep. Shuster escaped to a tropical locale on his PAC’s dime. An examination of campaign finance records by CREW reveals that the congressman regularly visits beachside destinations in the name of fundraising, providing ample opportunity to mix it up with the special interests that contribute to his campaigns.
The lobbyists who spoke to Politico don’t appear to be taking issue with the idea of lawmakers and representatives of the industries they oversee traveling to vacation spots together. Those lobbyists were in Miami for the same reason, after all. Instead, the complaint appears to be that a single industry’s lobbyists have closer ties to a powerful lawmaker than they do and the relationship is being flaunted in public. Rep. Shuster’s ethically questionable personal relationship with one of the lobbyists is obviously a factor as well.
The fact of the matter is the fundraising circuit for members of Congress regularly brings them to vacation spots and lobbyists are often part of the package, funding the getaways with their campaign contributions. As the New York Times’ Eric Lipton reported in 2014, “[t]his is the world of destination fund-raisers, where business interests blend with pleasure in exclusive vacation venues.”
Florida appears to be a favorite fundraising destination for Rep. Shuster. In 2014 and 2015, for instance, his PAC spent $28,771 at the Seagate Hotel & Spa, a four star hotel in Delray Beach, FL. The PAC also paid forvisits to the Pelican Grand Beach Resort in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, the Postcard Inn in St. Pete Beach, FL, and the Gale South Beach in Miami, FL. Rep. Shuster’s campaign committee also spent money in Miami in 2015, dropping $3,518 for lodging at a five star hotel called The Shore Club in Miami Beach, FL and $1,227 at the five star Loews Miami Beach. Last year, the campaign spent $1,129 with a company that operates “premier private-membership clubs” in Ponte Vedra, FL as well as $302 for lodging at the Longboat Key Club on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
But Florida wasn’t the only sundrenched locale where Rep. Shuster’s team spent money. The PAC spent $4,595 in Puerto Rico last year, including lodging at the El Conquistador, a five star hotel “[p]erched high above the ocean on [a] 300-foot cliff.” As CREW has previously noted, Rep. Shuster’s political operation has also paid for fundraising activities in the Virgin Islands, where the congressman owns a timeshare. In 2015, the PAC spent more than $2,000 on “event catering” at two restaurants on the island of St. Thomas.
Here’s the rub: This type of fundraising, gaudy as it may be, is legal. Lobbyists can’t directly pay for a lawmakers’ tropical vacation. That would be an impermissible gift. But if they contribute to the lawmakers’ PAC and the PAC pays for the lawmaker to travel to and stay at a resort for a fundraiser, it’s not considered a gift. And the lobbyists are welcome, even encouraged, to join them on the trip. “To the average person, it looks like money laundering, because it is,” the Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee told the Omaha World-Herald in 2014. “It’s just legal.”
Just because it isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it can’t cause problems though. Rep. Shuster’s primary challenger, Art Halvorson, pounced on the Politico story and demanded Rep. Shuster resign. Mr. Halvorson also contrasted the images of Rep. Shuster’s luxury fundraising jaunts with the experiences of voters in Pennsylvania’s 9th district. “While thousands of people in the region are struggling to make ends meet, Congressman Shuster is brazenly cavorting in the lap of luxury with corporate lobbyists who only days earlier testified to his committee about their legislation putting them in control of air traffic,” Mr. Halvorson said.
Rep. Shuster has previously said that Ms. Rubino doesn’t lobby his office and A4A has said Mr. Calio “is the chief person who lobbies Chairman Shuster on behalf of A4A and our members.” Rep. Shuster’s officerefused to comment to Politico about the trip, but a spokesperson of his dismissed the article to a local Pennsylvania newspaper as “a liberal tabloid-like story that is light on facts and heavy with misleading information.”
There’s no dismissing, however, the fact that Rep. Shuster regularly gets his fun in the sun courtesy of his PAC and campaign funds, and those funds in turn often come from lobbyists who are more than happy to join him on the beach.