By Brian Tumulty
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is following in the footsteps -- or more accurately, the flight path -- of New York's senior senator from Brooklyn.
Gillibrand and Sen. Chuck Schumer together billed taxpayers for $449,433 in chartered aircraft fees to travel around New York for the 12 months ending Sept. 30.
Schumer's Senate office paid $254,636 for 49 charters while Gillibrand's office paid $194,797 for 30 flights, according to reports filed with the secretary of the Senate.
The taxpayer-financed trips -- often to numerous upstate cities on the same day -- enabled Schumer to make 17 stops in Albany, 13 in Rochester, 12 in Buffalo, 11 in Syracuse and five in Binghamton over the 12-month period.
Gillibrand lives in an Albany suburb and previously lived south of Albany in the community of Hudson. She made seven air charter stops in Buffalo, four in Rochester, eight in Syracuse and four in Binghamton.
She also does numerous events in one day. Her $9,460 air charter last May 6 from Washington, D.C. to Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse with a return to Washington featured press conferences in all three cities on her role as lead Senate sponsor of the Urban Jobs Act for employing at-risk youth. The bill has eight cosponsors sponsors but has not been reported out of committee.
Gillibrand's $1,669 air charter on Aug. 29 from Albany to Westchester County Airport and Islip McArthur Airport on Long Island was to tour flood damage with local officials, including Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison.
She toured flood damage again on Sept. 9 with Broome County Executive Patrick Brennan, Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan and Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Oneida County. The charter flight from Washington, D.C. to Binghamton and back to Washington cost $4,111.
Both senators also have landed their air charters in smaller communities.
Gillibrand's chartered plane has stopped in Elmira, Poughkeepsie, Penn Yann, Oswego, Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh. Schumer has landed in Batavia, Saratoga Springs and Dunkirk, according to his expense reports.
In addition, the senators visit neighboring communities by car.
On Friday, Schumer flew via charter to Jamestown, then drove to Olean and Corning before boarding his air charter once again, according to spokesman Matt House. House declined to reveal the senator's final destination.
Larger upstate cities have commercial passenger service that is much less expensive. And both senators have district offices in those cities with staffers who can drive them to various nearby locations.
But there are no direct flights between many upstate cities, which leaves the senators with the option of driving or using air charters if they want to visit numerous cities in one day.
Schumer has long justified his use of charter aircraft by saying it helps him visit each of New York's 62 counties every year.
A June 2009 analysis by the Politico newspaper ranked Schumer No. 2 behind Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn in use of charter flights by members of the Senate.
Cornyn continues to use air charters.
"Texas is the second-largest state in the nation, and while Sen. Cornyn flies commercial when flights are possible, charter flights allow the senator to visit those regions of Texas not accessible by commercial aircraft," Cornyn's spokeswoman, Megan Mitchell, said in an e-mail Thursday.
Politico's analysis found Schumer's office billed taxpayers $155,767 for 25 charters during the six months between Oct. 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009.
That's roughly the same rate of air charter usage -- just less than one per week -- that Schumer logged last year. Many of the flights were bunched around congressional recesses.
"As everyone knows, no senator travels their state more aggressively than Chuck Schumer," House said in an e-mail. "It is not possible to keep this rigorous a schedule by flying on commercial airlines alone, so he also travels on a small, four-seat propeller plane with no bathroom that's not even big enough to stand up in."
Schumer lately has flown in a 1981 Piper Navajo Chieftain owned by Air Charter Express of Rome, N.Y., which the firm's website lists as available at a base price of $680 an hour plus a fuel surcharge, passenger facility fee and other fees. When the twin propeller plane is not airborne, the firm charges a $50-an-hour waiting fee.
Schumer is accompanied on his charter flights by a member of his Senate staff, according to House. He declined to name the staffer who most frequently travels with the senator. Schumer's office expense reports don't mention a travel companion.
Schumer formerly used a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza owned by the same firm, which carries a less expensive base price of $395 an hour.
Gillibrand is usually accompanied by at least two staffers. Her most frequent traveling companions are Communications Director Bethany Lesser and special advisor Giovanna Torchio. Other staffers who have traveled with Gillibrand include Chief of Staff Jess Fassler, Regional Director Susan Merrell and Communications Director Glen Caplin.
Gillibrand contracts with Zen Air LLC based in Teterboro, N.J. as a broker to find passenger planes available for charters. Zen Air owns two Gulfstream G-IV aircraft, but spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said the senator does not fly aboard Zen Air's planes.
The chartered planes are typically are six-seat jets with a toilet located under one of the seats, she said.
Gillibrand has visited all 62 New York counties during two of the three years since her appointment to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in January 2009, Lesser said.
"Sen. Gillibrand believes that being accessible and hearing directly from the people she serves is an essential part of doing her job effectively and results in a stronger legislative agenda for New Yorkers," Lesser said. "It is no accident that the first bill she ever introduced in the Senate came directly from talking with a concerned mother at a public event."
The money spent on air charters comes out of the fixed office budgets each senator receives.
Both senators also spend significant amounts on commercial passenger flights.
Lesser said Gillibrand uses commercial flights when practical, but at certain times -- such as last year, when Gillibrand needed to tour damaged areas on short notice after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee -- air charters become the best option.
Senators and House members decide for themselves how to allocate their office budgets among salaries, travel, equipment, leases for district offices and other needs.
For Schumer, being accessible to constituents is a high priority, according to House.
"These in-state visits involve no added cost to the taxpayer," he said. "Sen. Schumer prides himself on being the most accessible, engaged senator that New York has ever had. Sen. Schumer held more than 150 upstate events last year, not including the suburbs, which wouldn't be possible solely flying on commercial airlines."
Senate office budgets vary based on a state's size. Schumer and Gillibrand each spent $4.33 million in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30. Each spent $3.6 million on staff salaries and just over $408,000 on travel expenses for themselves and their staffs. Other expenses included leases for district offices around the state.
Each New York senator has eight district offices, including locations in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Manhattan and Melville on Long Island.
Schumer's Hudson Valley office is in Peekskill while Gillibrand's is in Mahopac. Schumer has a Southern Tier office in Binghamton and Gillibrand has one in the North Country community of Lowville.
Gillibrand had $38,786 in unspent money at the end of fiscal 2011 while Schumer had $42,621. But senators can keep adding expenses to the budget for a particular fiscal year for up to two years after that fiscal year ends.
Congress has been paring congressional office budgets. Senate office budgets were cut 5 percent in fiscal 2011 and an additional 1 percent in fiscal 2012, according to Schumer's spokesman. House lawmakers cut their office budgets 5 percent in fiscal 2011 and 6.4 percent in fiscal 2012.
Senate office expense reports covering April 1-Sept. 30 of last year were posted online Nov. 29, marking the first time such reports have been widely available for public viewing. Reports for earlier periods are in bound volumes in the Senate library in the basement of the Senate Russell Office Building.
The next online posting of Senate office expenses will cover Oct. 1, 2011 to March 31 this year. That report will go online by the end of May.
Steve Ellis, a spokesman for the budget watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said Senate office expenses offer the public a look at how individual senators deal with the federal budget "when the rest of the country is tightening their belts."
"It's a balancing act," Ellis said. "Clearly they are in a different position. They have a lot of demands on their time. But just as people in Oswego want to see Sen. Schumer or Sen. Gillibrand, they want them to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars."
Senators need to demonstrate a sense of shared sacrifice when constituents are worrying about their next paycheck, Ellis said.
By Brian Tumulty, Gannett Washington Bureau