For those who have been with us from the beginning, you might remember a story from nearly five years ago, when one of our reporters caught Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) engaging in the “do as I say, not as I do” behavior that too often comes naturally to our elected officials. In her previous work as president of the left-wing group Common Cause, Pingree had publicly and sharply criticized officials who accepted free trips on private planes from wealthy influencers. At the time, she wrote: “Most Americans never have and never will fly on a chartered jet, much less a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches. So when members of Congress constantly fly around on corporate jets and pay only the cost of a commercial ticket, it contributes to the corrosive public perception that members of Congress are more like the fat cats of Wall Street than they are like the rest of us.”
Once elected to Congress, she even introduced a bill to ban this kind of lavish travel from influence-buyers. So when one of our Watchdog reporters, Stephan Burklin, received a tip that recently-elected Rep. Pingree (pictured, right) might be flying around on, in her words “a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches,” he went digging.
What Burklin found was that Rep. Pingree was in fact frequently traveling in style on a plane owned by her billionaire boyfriend and hedge fund owner Donald Sussman. Burklin discovered flight manifests that indicated numerous trips, and he even staked out the Portland airport for photos of Pingree arriving on the jet. When the Watchdog story broke, it was a national embarrassment for Pingree and Democrats– especially when it transpired that then-Rep. Barney Frank had also traveled on the plane. News outlets across the country picked up the story, and one Maine political observer wrote that he hoped the work of the Franklin Center – then in our infancy – “inspires the old, tired media to get off their collective butts and do some digging.”
It’s been nearly five years since that story, years during which, thanks to your support, the Franklin Center has grown, changed, and racked up a record of accomplishment beyond what we ever imagined. But in a long-awaited and deeply satisfying conclusion to this story, just last week news came across the wires that Rep. Pingree would finally face sanctions, as the Federal Election Commission slapped her with a fine and also ordered her to pay back the cost of her flights.
Over the last five years, we’ve written stories that triggered immediate action. At other times, results have come slower. But we’re proud to share with you this story from the Franklin Center’s earliest days that has finally borne fruit. Thank you for standing with us through both the wins that come quickly and the results that take longer to produce.