'Amtrak Joe' Spent Big on Private Planes, Helicopters

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His old boss left the White House in a chopper. He took the train.

The day the new president took office in 2017, the old vice president boarded a northbound Acela. “Back on Amtrak,” Joe Biden told the cameras, giving an everyman thumbs-up. It was an appropriate way to leave Washington -- really the only way -- for a man who had taken care to call himself “Amtrak Joe.”

Headed home to Delaware, he held forth for reporters:

“What I used to do, literally, is you ride along here at night going home and you look out, you look in the windows and you see the lights on and think about -- I mean this sincerely -- I think about what’s going on at that kitchen table.”

That might be a helpful exercise for any leader. It is also impossible to do at an altitude of 30,000 feet. While the longtime Democratic officeholder brands himself as solidly blue-collar, records reviewed by RealClearPolitics reveal a politician who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout his career on transportation by private plane and even private helicopter. Some of the travel was paid for by his campaigns and other trips by taxpayers. On more than one occasion, Biden chartered flights aboard planes owned by longtime political donors and lobbyists.

All of this comes into focus as Biden makes another run for the White House. Like the other candidates, he’s been busy crisscrossing the country in pursuit of the nomination. Sitting in first place, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, he spent $924,000 in the last quarter alone traveling on private planes, Federal Election Commission records show. Other candidates charter jets, and it is difficult to fault a former vice president and the current front-runner for not flying commercial. (Security would be a nightmare.) What’s more, campaigning cross-country by public railways would be all but impossible. But no one has tied their identity to trains the way Joe Biden has.

He’s often talked about his commute from Wilmington, Del., to Washington, D.C., and back during his many years in the Senate. 

“I have made over — they actually calculated it, the conductors — 8,200 round trips, over 2 million miles on Amtrak. Two hundred and fifty-nine miles round trip a day -- not every day, but on average 217 days a year,” Biden bragged. “This is my family, and this is why I wanted to go home, the way I came.”

The former longtime lawmaker started taking the train in 1973 when first elected. He loves to talk about these miles travelled on steel rails. He may be less eager to discuss private travel through the air, as his campaign did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.

During his time in the Senate, Biden spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly on private planes and helicopters. Between 2005 and 2006, his campaign spent at least $56,000 on this kind of travel even though he wasn’t up for election for another two years. In 2008, Biden managed to spend $14,440 on private helicopter transportation.

All the receipts are publicly available. None of his competitors have made an issue of this, though former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke flies commercial exclusively, telling voters (in a video recorded while waiting on an airport tarmac) that by ditching private planes “we are putting your $5, $10, $15 to use.”

Sniping over private transport is not unusual. Biden himself implied Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama operated on a swankier level than he did during the 2008 general election. He was running late to a presidential forum in Iowa, walking on stage with sleet and snow still stuck to his jacket, and explaining away his delay with regular-Joe charm: “I took a seven-hour ride from Chicago, I apologize. I don’t have a plane.”

But now Biden has a plane, and soon Biden could see that kind of middle-class jab coming his way. He could deflect it easily enough, explained Dan Schnur, who served as communications director for the late Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, because private planes “rarely become a political liability, if only because [that travel] is so commonplace.”

This could change, of course, “if it appears the candidate’s air travel is being subsidized or provided by an individual or organization who stands to benefit directly from a candidate’s policy decisions.”

This could lead to questions about two flights Biden chartered on New Year's Eve in 2006. His campaign paid Excel Three LLC $9,081 for candidate travel. The purpose of the trip remains unknown. Public records, however, reveal some information. The company is owned by the law firm Williams Hart, where John Eddie Williams Jr. is the managing partner.

Biden knows Williams. The two are friends, and as vice president Biden spent the holidays in 2009 with Williams aboard his 190-foot yacht in the Bahamas. Williams is also a donor. Throughout his career, according to FEC records, Biden has cashed checks worth at least $9,900 from the wealthy lawyer, including a contribution of $2,800, the maximum allowed by law, to his current presidential campaign.

Calls to Williams Hart were not returned.

This wasn’t the only time Biden paid a donor for the use of a private plane. He paid $1,136 to BFB Aircraft LLC in October of 2004. Public records show that the company is owned by Ben Barnes, the former lieutenant governor of Texas, a longtime donor, and a well-connected D.C. lobbyist.

Barnes has donated at least $8,000 to Biden throughout his political career, records show. Barnes has also been a prolific lobbyist for the oil and banking industry. According to federal lobbying disclosures, the Ben Barnes Group was paid more than $2.4 million for lobbying work in 2004 alone.

Calls to the Ben Barnes Group were not returned.

Because the Biden campaign did not return requests for comment, it is unknown where the candidate was travelling when he paid his donors for these private flights. But the exact whereabouts of Biden on June 8, 2005 are known. According to a report by the Secretary of the Senate, Biden’s Senate office spent $6,576 to charter a private plane with Aero Taxi Inc. to fly from Wilmington to Nantucket, Mass., then to Baltimore, then back to Nantucket and finally Wilmington — all in the same day.

Other Democratic senators made similar trips to the Massachusetts island that day, at least one of whom reported his as having a mixed purpose of both official Senate business and campaign activity, splitting costs accordingly.

Why were so many senators flying to Nantucket the same day? According to press reports, an event was being hosted there by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; among those present was then-House Rep. Claire McCaskill, who was mulling a bid for the upper chamber. She would eventually run for that office, win it in 2006 to represent Missouri, and then lose a re-election bid in 2018 -- possibly due in part to her own controversial use of private aircraft.

None of this is totally out of the ordinary. Politicians travel, and their lives are an itinerant mix of official business, fundraisers, stump speeches and media appearances where a candidate’s most valuable commodity is time. Along the way, especially during a political career that spans decades, even a politician from the nation’s second smallest state -- one that’s just a 90-minute train ride from Washington -- will likely charter a jet to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

If Biden wins the nomination and eventually returns to Washington for a multi-year residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he will have found his way there aboard not just trains, but also much pricier modes of transportation.

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