- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

Taxpayers are picking up a considerable chunk of Hillary Rodham Clinton's travel expenses as she seeks a Senate seat in New York all completely legally.

Under a 25-year-old web of law and policies, Mrs. Clinton and her staff pay the cost of commercial first-class tickets when she travels aboard military aircraft for purely political purposes. Even the smallest passenger plane operated by the U.S. Air Force costs about $3,700 per hour to operate.

"I am well aware that first ladies have traveled on government aircraft for political purposes in the past … but what we are talking about here has nothing to do with the first lady's political or official obligations. She is wearing a hat we have never seen before," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican and chairman of the House panel that oversees the White House travel budget.

It is not clear how much taxpayers have paid for Mrs. Clinton's travel since she first began exploring a Senate bid last June, and congressional investigators are still trying to gather figures.

But it is clear that the cost of the military aircraft far exceeds the costs paid by Mrs. Clinton's campaign. During the six-month period before Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy, for example, she paid $27,511 to cover the costs of campaign trips.

Even assuming that she flew the smallest military passenger aircraft, that travel cost the government $113,896 in operating costs, based on the flight times provided by the White House and average operating expenses provided by the Air Force.

But there is nothing illegal about Mrs. Clinton's travels. The method of accounting for personal, political and official travel dates back many administrations, said Michael J. Lyle, director of the office of administration, which oversees many White House functions.

Mr. Lyle testified before Mr. Kolbe's committee Thursday and said he is bound by the existing law and policy and cannot arbitrarily charge Mrs. Clinton a different rate for her travel.

"There has been no deviation from the policies of the past," he said.

The first lady is not required to use government-owned aircraft for her travel, and Mrs. Clinton has in the past taken commercial flights. But the Secret Service strongly recommends that members of the first family avoid commercial flight for security reasons.

"It allows us to better utilize our protective services and have greater control. If she did not, it would be against our strongest objection," Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackalin said.

White House documents released at Thursday's hearings show that first ladies have routinely traveled on military aircraft since at least the Carter administration. A 1981 memo, signed by Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, James A. Baker III, explicitly reaffirmed the policy.

Mrs. Clinton's travel has become an issue recently as the Republican National Committee and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, her likely Republican opponent, have objected to her official perks. The RNC claims that Mrs. Clinton's campaign has cost taxpayers more than $900,000 in the past year, although Mr. Kolbe's staff emphatically distanced themselves from that figure.

Democrats and the White House reacted furiously to the Republican charges. They accused Republicans of "playing politics" with Mrs. Clinton's safety.

"It is not the policy, it is not the legality, it is not the appropriateness" that bothers Republicans, said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the senior Democrat on Mr. Kolbe's committee. "It is the fact that she is doing a lot of travel doing what she has the right to do as an American citizen … but she cannot un-become the first lady."

Mrs. Clinton's campaign released an angry statement, calling Thursday's hearing "an attempt to deflect attention from Rudy Giuliani's tragic mishandling of the Patrick Dorismond shooting," in which city police recently shot an unarmed black man.

"Yesterday's press release from the RNC proves that this hearing is nothing more than a partisan exercise conducted at taxpayers' expense," Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said in the written statement.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, said other candidates should be subject to the same scrutiny Mrs. Clinton is receiving from Republicans.

"I think they've opened a can of worms," he said. "We may have to examine the mayor to see what his travel expenses are when he leaves the city of New York, makes his political jaunts around the country."

Republicans appeared taken aback by the ferocity of the Democratic reaction and backpedaled during Mr. Kolbe's hearing. They went to great lengths to agree that Mrs. Clinton deserves special protection and has not violated the law.

"I think the law was not written for this purpose, because nobody anticipated it," said Rep. John E. Peterson, Pennsylvania Republican.

But "simply following the law might cause you problems with the public," he warned Mr. Lyle, noting that he and other members are receiving calls from constituents worried about Mrs. Clinton's expenses.

• Staff writer Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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