(Updated 3:10 p.m., Friday, Dec. 27, 2013)
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill – or rather, her husband -- has bought another plane. But this time, she’s taking steps that she hopes will prevent another political uproar.
Any flights that she takes on it will be totally on her own dime. And St. Louis County’s property taxes will be paid – and on time, she says.
Still, the news has the potential of becoming another political controversy. The Missouri Republican Party already is paying close attention.
The senator’s office issued a statement Friday that "the company owned by Claire’s husband Joseph Shepard has purchased a plane, which will primarily be used for his business, and which will also be chartered to other flyers by an independent charter company.”
The statement continued: “Claire may occasionally use the plane, but will always do so at her own expense. Even if she uses the plane for Senate travel, Claire will never seek reimbursement from the Senate.”
John LaBombard, McCaskill’s communications director, added, “While this plane belongs to Joseph’s company, Claire is disclosing the purchase publicly and immediately.”
“Any use of the plane by Claire will never be paid with taxpayer dollars, and Joseph has implemented strict safeguards to ensure every cost associated with the plane is paid fully and on-time," LaBombard said.
The plane was purchased Dec. 20, the spokesman said later.
Previous plane caused political pain
In early 2011, just as she was preparing for a tough re-election bid, McCaskill found herself in an uproar over another plane owned by one of her husband’s firms and periodically used by the senator.
The plane -- subsequently sold -- ended up being a political thorn in her side all through her 2012 re-election bid, as Republicans sought to portray McCaskill as out of touch and elitist.
But the issue faded because of more damaging missteps in mid-2012 by her Republican rival, then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood. McCaskill trounced him.
That earlier plane controversy centered on two issues: the federal reimbursements she improperly received for some of the travel; and the failure to pay property taxes to St. Louis County because the plane was housed at a hangar in the county.
The family was reimbursed through her office’s travel funds – which come from tax dollars -- for some of her flights. Such payments were legal as long as all the travel was for official business. But it turned out that a few of the flights also involved McCaskill’s campaign stops, which must be covered with campaign funds.
In an effort to quell the political damage, McCaskill reimbursed the federal government for all of her flights on the plane – close to $90,000 – although legally she could have paid a fraction of that amount.
The years of missed personal property tax payments were an oversight, McCaskill said at the time, because her family wasn’t aware the county taxed planes. The family paid roughly $320,000 in back taxes and penalties.
This time, McCaskill's office said that Shepard’s company will file the proper paperwork with the county on Jan. 2, to ensure that the plane is on file and tax bills are received.
In addition, an outside firm has been hired to “manage compliance and monitoring of all tax and financial reporting and disclosures associated with the plane. This will ensure that all payments associated with the plane are paid fully and on time,” her office said.
An independent firm also “will manage day-to-day operations with the plane. This will ensure that the aircraft is managed properly.”
Later Friday, state Republican Party spokesman Matt Wills said that the GOP sees no impropriety in her family buying a plane "if you do the proper things."
"The track record of what Sen. McCaskill has done in the past regarding the use of a private plane bears keeping an eye on, and we will definitely be doing that,'' Wills said.
He added that it also appeared, from the GOP perspective, that McCaskill's statement of the precautions her family was taking implied that she was seeking plaudits for "doing what you're supposed to be doing, anyway."