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California and the West

Some Lawmakers Fly First-Class at Taxpayer Expense

Congress: Although most in state delegation use personal funds or frequent-flier miles to upgrade coach tickets, a few do not, racking up $270,000 in bills over five years.


WASHINGTON — When members of California's congressional delegation fly home from the Capitol, as they did to kick off a 20-day spring break late last week, most charge taxpayers just the low government rate--$199 round-trip to Los Angeles and about $500 to San Francisco.

But some choose to spend more of the public's money.

About a dozen lawmakers routinely use government funds for upgrades or first-class tickets, racking up a bill of at least $270,000 over the past five years, according to a Times review of House of Representatives records.

The legislators say the roomier seats in a quieter cabin allow them to relax or review paperwork during the lengthy cross-country commute many make dozens of times each year.

Other House members--and California's two senators--said they use frequent-flier miles or free coupons for upgrades, pay for the perk out of their own pocket or simply sit in coach because they do not consider their own comfort a legitimate government expense.

"It's very easy for members of Congress, with their generous salaries and their lavish perks, to forget the commonplace economic trials and indignities that the rest of us Americans have to cope with on a daily basis," said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Washington-based watchdog group. "When it comes to perks, this is not the largest one . . . but the bottom line is this is taxpayers' money, and it's a waste of it."

Overall, 15 of the state's 52 House members in the 105th Congress--12 Democrats and three Republicans--flew first class or listed upgrades in their expense reports from 1993 to 1997, though some described them vaguely as "member's travel certificates" or "additional air fare expense." Other legislators may have charged taxpayers for upgrades but lumped it in with their air fare, making it impossible to discern from the records.

Congressional observers say most lawmakers do not upgrade at public expense; The Times reviewed only records for the Californians, whose commute is among the most challenging.

Each congressional office gets a set budget--determined in part by a district's distance from Washington--covering travel, mailings, staff salaries and office supplies, and members have broad discretion over how to spend it. Any leftover money is returned to the treasury.

By far the biggest spender per trip was Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland), who quit Congress in February after 27 years. Dellums booked first-class tickets directly at a price of up to $3,165 round-trip, about six times the government rate. A cheaper route would have been to buy coach tickets and upgrades, which cost from $25 to $200 a flight and bump passengers from coach to business or first class if there is room.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) never pays the first-class fare, but uses government money to buy upgrades for virtually all of his frequent trips home, spending at least $26,412.59 for upgrades since 1993.

"We're talking about something that costs about $250 total [per trip]," Berman said. "To me, it's not worth a story."

Besides Dellums, only Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles) repeatedly paid full first-class fares, and he stopped doing so several years ago because of "snarls" from the news media, he said. In 1993, Dixon flew 14 times at $2,000 or more a trip, then switched to using the government rate plus upgrades--which cost about $500 round trip--for four more flights that year. Since then, Dixon used his congressional budget to pay for $9,995.60 in upgrades for 55 trips, the records show.

"It's a comfort thing," he said.

"I avoid coach any way I can," said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward), who has upgraded about 10 times a year since 1993 for a total of $11,752.50. "If I walked, it would save the government money, but I don't."

Other current members who used their congressional budgets for upgrades or first-class travel, according to the records, are Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), who upgraded on at least 29 trips for $4,695; Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton), four trips, $740; Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), 11 trips, $1,640; Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), 39 trips, $8,234; and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson), six trips, $1,080.

Also, George Miller (D-Martinez), 78 trips, $13,280; George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), eight trips, $938; William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), 14 trips, cost unclear because of reporting methods; Esteban Edward Torres (D-Pico Rivera), one trip, $640; and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), 13 trips, $2,019.08.

Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs), who died in January, occasionally charged the public for upgrades or first-class tickets, including 10 trips at a cost of $1,380 in 1995.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance), a gubernatorial candidate, tapped her office account for 23 upgrades during her first term, which began in 1993. She then wrote personal checks for $2,370 in 1994 to reimburse the treasury, saying an aide mistakenly charged the government.

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