Skip to comments.Sheila Jackson Lee, Limousine Liberal: Does she think the ethics rules don't apply to her?
Posted on 02/02/2002 5:09:34 PM PST by BenR2
WHEN SHEILA JACKSON LEE first came to Washington in January 1995, the Texas Democrat railed against the
Capitol's silk-stockinged elite. "The American people want reform, not phony but real reform," she said in her debut House speech. "They want to know that the days of free meals and free trips and special privileges are over. . . . As Members of Congress, we should not be using public office for private gain."
How times change.
It's about 200 paces from the awning of Jackson Lee's Capitol Hill apartment to the marbled steps of the Cannon House Office Building, where her office is. Most people think the walk is a pleasant one. Red-brick townhouses give onto tree-lined streets; crossing guards ensure no one is run over. It's the kind of neighborhood where you might expect to find the Republican party's headquarters--and do. They're right next door to Jackson Lee's building. In a city that consistently ranks among the nation's worst for commuting, Jackson Lee would seem to have it made.
But apparently it's not convenient enough. Jackson Lee is routinely chauffeured the one short block to work--in a government car, by a member of her staff, at the taxpayers' expense. And apparently in violation of House rules.
As Jackson Lee noted on her first day in Congress, the use of public funds for private ends is a major no-no, and the political graveyard is strewn with officials who forgot that. In 1991, John Sununu stepped down as President Bush's chief of staff after a series of gaffes involving subsidized transportation, the final one being a limousine stop at Christie's in New York to look at rare stamps. In 1994, top Clinton aide David Watkins was forced to resign after a picture caught him using the president's helicopter for a golf outing. And then there's the case of former House Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski, who was charged with widespread malfeasance, including the use of government staffers and cars to routinely run errands.
In 1997 a federal appeals court dismissed these latter charges against the Chicago Democrat on the grounds that the line between "official" and "unofficial" use of public employees and cars is blurry. But the obvious fat-cat implications in these and other cases have led the various branches of government to define the scope of official travel more narrowly. None is more strict than the House of Representatives.
According to the Congressional Handbook, the bible of dos and don'ts for House offices, "commuting expenses are not reimbursable." These costs are defined as "transportation expenses incurred by the Member or employees between their residence and duty station." A spokesman for the Committee on House Administration confirms that the use of a government-leased vehicle for commuting purposes and the use of a public employee as a driver are both violations of House rules. Of course, every lawmaker is expected to know the Congressional Handbook. But Jackson Lee was also provided a copy of these guidelines when her office leased the car that she rides in to work.
Should the House Ethics committee pursue the matter, the Congressional Handbook states Jackson Lee could be "personally liable for payments under any lease not in compliance with House Rules and Committee regulations." These expenses include not just the cost of the lease, paid for from her office allowance, but maintenance and fuel, for which she is also reimbursed.
Jackson Lee declined comment for this story, but when the alternative weekly Houston Press raised similar issues in 1997, she said: "Anything my staff does in my office is pursuant to congressional rules . . . [and] whatever staff does is pursuant to congressional business."
The rules do provide some leniency. Non-governmental use of a public vehicle is allowed if it is "during the course of and generally along the route of a day's official itinerary; incidental to the day's official and representational business; de minimis in nature, frequency, and time consumed," and if it "does not otherwise constitute a significant activity or event." But on any given day, driving Miss Sheila to work is always a significant activity or event.
Or so at least I was told a few weeks ago by an outraged member of Congress, who himself manages to walk to work and noticed Jackson Lee's commuting habits. They're easy to notice.
Take, for example, the morning of December 6, a balmy Thursday when the temperature in Washington would climb to 73 degrees. At 8:43, a blue Ford Contour with government plates--the car Jackson Lee's office has leased--pulled up to her building. For the next 23 minutes, the aide impeded traffic on one of Capitol Hill's busiest streets, pulling in and out of alleys and reserved parking spaces. Finally, at 9:06, Jackson Lee appeared.
The aide jumped from the car and hurried to help the congresswoman. First she opened the rear door so Jackson Lee could deposit a bag and sheaf of papers; then she opened the passenger door. But Jackson Lee took this opportunity to place a phone call, and the aide stood patiently by. After a minute or so of this, Jackson Lee determined she was ready to climb in. But something was wrong. An uncomfortable moment passed as the congresswoman and aide stared at each other. Of course! Jackson Lee's coat and shawl were still on!
The aide sprang to remove the garments, and Jackson Lee gave an exasperated look. After Jackson Lee climbed in, the aide gently closed the door, scurried around the rear of the car to the driver's seat, and they were off to the office, a block away. It was such a short trip, Jackson Lee didn't even bother to fasten her seatbelt.
On December 12, on the other hand, Jackson Lee was in a hurry. She shot out of her building at 9:10 (the car and driver had idled for 22 minutes), ignored a well-wisher on the street, and jumped into the car as it executed a harrowing five-point turn. With hazard lights flashing, the car then ran two red lights. While lawmakers are generally allowed to flout traffic laws to get to the Capitol if a vote is in progress, on this day the first vote wasn't for another hour.
The next day, I asked Jackson Lee's driver about the possible ethics violations of using a government car for commuting. The aide declined to comment and instead flagged down a Capitol Hill police officer to report that her boss was being "stalked" and that Jackson Lee "feels very threatened."
VANITY and a sense of victimhood are handmaidens to Jackson Lee when traveling. Just ask Continental Airlines, her hometown carrier.
For years, Jackson Lee tormented the airline's office in Washington that handles VIP booking. When Congress was in session, her staff would make several reservations early in the week for return flights to Houston. After the House finished its business that week, she would grab whichever flight was most convenient and scrap the others. But this kind of rule-bending put the carrier in a difficult position. Not only was Jackson Lee only paying coach fare (she was routinely bumped up to first class), but Continental was unable to sell the premier seats she didn't use.
Meanwhile, airline crew regularly complained about Jackson Lee's rudeness. Continental managers, however, feared reprisal and saw little they could do. "After medicine, airlines are the most heavily regulated industry in the United States," says a lobbyist for a Texas-based carrier. "Every airline feels they have to kiss up to Congress; they always feel their livelihood is in Congress's hands."
But in February 1998, things finally came to a head. On a flight home to Houston, Jackson Lee became enraged when flight attendants failed to produce the seafood special she liked. "Don't you know who I am?" she reportedly thundered. "I'm Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Where is my seafood meal? I know it was ordered!"
That outburst prompted a phone call to Jackson Lee from Rebecca Cox, vice president of Continental's government affairs office in Washington and the wife of California Republican Chris Cox. The message? Straighten up and fly right, or don't fly with us.
Cox did not return calls seeking comment, but a member of Jackson Lee's staff who fielded the call remembered Cox saying, "[Jackson Lee] screamed at the top of her lungs at least a minute. She embarrassed the flight attendants and the passengers in first class. And she embarrassed herself." Cox then joked, "We have already given her the Delta Airlines schedule."
Jackson Lee got back on board with Continental, but not for long. In May 1999, as Continental flight 1961 prepared to leave Reagan National Airport in Washington, Jackson Lee became flustered when she couldn't find her purse. Thinking she had left it in the boarding area, she went back to search for it. Meanwhile, the plane pulled away from the gate. Moments later, her purse was found onboard. According to aviation lobbyists at the time, Jackson Lee demanded that she be let back on the flight. Airline employees explained that FAA rules prohibit planes from returning to the gate once they've taxied away, but Jackson Lee was unconvinced. She accused the gate staff of racism and demanded to see their supervisor, who was a black woman. Her purse, meanwhile, was unceremoniously dropped out of the cockpit window and ferried back to her.
A year earlier, at a March 2, 1998, reenactment of the march on Selma, an irate Jackson Lee called her scheduler in D.C. demanding to know why she hadn't been given a ride to the event by the organizer, as a white colleague had been. According to the aide--who quit after just a month and a half on the job--Jackson Lee shrieked, "You don't understand. I am a queen, and I demand to be treated like a queen."
It will come as no surprise to learn that Jackson Lee is regarded as one of the most difficult members of Congress for whom to work. House records show that her office has bled staff, losing at least 85 full-time employees since 1995. In addition to schedulers, executive assistants, and "travel aides," she has run through 13 chiefs of staff and legislative directors, generally a congressional office's top two positions. By comparison, Rep. Mark Foley, an active and visible Florida Republican who entered with Jackson Lee in 1995, has lost 17 employees over the same period.
Despite her well-publicized flaps, Jackson Lee shows no signs of mending her ways. When her December 6 flight to Houston was unexpectedly diverted to an alternate gate, for example, a fellow passenger says the congresswoman was on the phone in a matter of seconds after deplaning, berating a staffer who was to pick her up for not anticipating the change. Indeed, soon after the FAA issued emergency regulations in the wake of September 11 prohibiting anyone but ticketed passengers in the gate area, aviation sources say Jackson Lee's office placed "multiple phone calls" to the agency demanding a special exemption for her entourage. The request was denied.
It seems to have taken a national emergency for someone finally to say no to Queen Sheila.
Sam Dealey is a writer in Washington.
It seems her operating philosophy runs like this: "I am a queen, and YOU are either my willing slave -- or a bleeping racist."
Jackson Lee won the special election in 1996 with 77 percent of the vote, was unopposed in the 1998 primary and won re-election in 1998 with 90 percent.
90%?????? No one wins a real election with 90% of the votes cast. She's a queen, all right.
(and isn't she right?)
PUHleeze. This is one of the dumbest people to ever grace congress. There is no need to connect her to Enron as though every person who took Enron money is stupid and evil. She is stand alone dumb.
What a freak'n bitch!
So you are saying that she is pretty much stand alone stupid and evil?
I can live with that.............
Well, I don't want to cast aspersions where none are deserved. Do you think she was right to ask to be shown where the Americans planted the flag on Mars? She is in Congress, after all...
I know and that is truly the scariest part of all.
The only saving factor is that she isn't from Idaho..........
Unfortunately, even Idaho suffers from this mental midget being in Congress. There is no saving grace when our Country is at the mercy of buffoons like Lee and Rangel and Waxman, et al.....
I will be laughing about this for weeks.
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