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Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., delivered one of her signature hard-hitting speeches at the Values Voter Summit, a conference for socially conservative activists on Sept. 17, 2010. At one point, Bachmann took a shot at the woman who leads her chamber, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi, Bachmann said, "has been busy sticking the taxpayer with her $100,000 bar tab for alcohol on the military jets that she's flying." Bachmann was referring to the Air Force jets that Pelosi uses to fly internationally and back to her home in San Francisco. (Her Republican predecessor, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, used them as well, under a program approved under President George W. Bush.)
Bachman's claim drew a rapid counterattack from the Speaker's office, as aides revived arguments they'd used when the allegation first surfaced months earlier. Among other things, Pelosi's office noted that the Speaker "does not drink alcohol" and that there "is no alcohol service on the domestic flights the Air Force operates for travel from Washington to San Francisco for the Speaker."
Two politicians diverging over the facts? Sounds like a job for PolitiFact.
We tracked down the original source of Bachmann's allegation, which was a large collection of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Judicial Watch, a conservative group that litigates on public corruption and other issues.
In a press release summarizing the findings, Judicial Watch wrote that "the Speaker’s military travel cost the United States Air Force $2,100,744.59 over a two-year period — $101,429.14 of which was for in-flight expenses, including food and alcohol."
The release gave as an example one Congressional delegation that traveled from Washington through Tel Aviv to Baghdad between May 15, 2008, and May 20, 2008, "to discuss matters of mutual concern with government leaders." The purchases included "Johnny Walker Red scotch, Grey Goose vodka, E&J brandy, Bailey’s Irish Crème, Maker’s Mark whiskey, Courvoisier cognac, Bacardi Light rum, Jim Beam whiskey, Beefeater gin, Dewars scotch, Bombay Sapphire gin, Jack Daniels whiskey, Corona beer and several bottles of wine," the release said.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton seized on the party-plane theme. "Speaker Pelosi has a history of wasting taxpayer funds with her boorish demands for military travel," Fitton was quoted as saying in the release. "And these documents suggest the Speaker’s congressional delegations are more about partying than anything else."
Other critics of Pelosi piled on soon after the Judicial Watch documents came to light. World Net Daily, a conservative website, led its article by saying that the purchases for the 2008 trip "reads like a dream order for a wild frat party ... But that single receipt makes up just part of the more than $101,000 taxpayers paid for 'in-flight services' -– including food and liquor -- for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi."
To Pelosi's critics, it must be irresistible to paint a rival as someone who leads debauched lawmakers on cushy overseas trips, only to stick taxpayers with the bill. But Bachmann's version of the facts is way off base.
Bachmann said at the Values Voter Summit that Pelosi "has been busy sticking the taxpayer with her $100,000 bar tab for alcohol on the military jets that she's flying." To us, Bachmann is clearly saying that Pelosi has spent $100,000 specifically on alcohol -- but that interpretation doesn't fly with the Judicial Watch summary.
The news release said that the $101,429.14 amount was for "in-flight expenses, including food and alcohol." But our friends at the website FactCheck.org determined that the sum spent on alcohol is a small proportion of that amount and that not all of the expenses were in-flight. "It’s clear that Judicial Watch is counting as 'in-flight expenses' any non-reimbursable Air Force expenditure besides transportation costs," FactCheck.org wrote. "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."
A spokeswoman for Judicial Watch confirmed to PolitiFact that "the tab amount includes, but is not limited to, alcohol and food."
Incidentally, the receipt that was the source of the "frat party" jab in World Net Daily, and which was also linked to in Judicial Watch's press release, shows a decidedly more modest pricetag for the "bar tab" -- namely, $560.28, purchased at what appears to have been a no-frills base exchange at Maryland's Bolling Air Force Base near Washington, D.C.
The full receipt isn't reproduced in the FOIA documents, so we can't be sure what percentage is food and what percentage is alcohol. But even if you use the full amount to extrapolate the total paid for alcohol, it doesn't come close to $100,000 Bachmann says. If Pelosi is to be believed that no alcohol is served on her domestic flights (which account for most of the flights she took as Speaker) and if you agree with FactCheck.org that she took a total of 12 international trips, then the total cost of alcohol would have been something less than $7,000, far lower than Bachmann's $100,000.
It's fair game to argue that buying liquor for lawmaker jaunts is an unjustifiable taxpayer expenditure even if perfectly legal. However, if Bachmann wanted to criticize these outlays, she should have read the Judicial Watch news release more closely. Since Bachmann (or her staff) didn't do so, she ended up citing a figure for alcohol expenditures that was close to the much larger number for all non-plane costs of the trip. We rate her statement Pants on Fire.
Michele Bachmann, comments at the Values Voter Summit, Sept. 17, 2010
Judicial Watch, "Judicial Watch Uncovers New Documents Detailing Pelosi's Use of Air Force Aircraft" (news release), Jan. 28, 2010
World Net Daily, "Taxpayers' $101,000 includes Pelosi's in-flight 'food, booze,'" Jan. 29, 2010
FactCheck.org, "Pelosi’s Party Plane?" March 4, 2010
E-mail interview with Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sept. 20, 2010
E-mail interview with Jill Farrell, director of public affairs at Judicial Watch, Sept. 20, 2010
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