Sen. Jay Rockefeller comes from one of America's wealthiest families and represents a state only 60 miles from the District of Columbia, yet he travels home almost exclusively via private charter plane at $4,400 per trip and sends the bill to taxpayers.
There are as many as six commercial flights a day between D.C. and Charleston, W.Va., the city Rockefeller flies to and from. A round-trip ticket for the one-hour flight costs as little as $206.
The travel costs he billed to taxpayers over the past three years were greater than all but 11 senators, including those from Alaska, Washington state, Montana and other far-flung locales, a Washington Examiner analysis of Senate travel records reveals.
A Senate out of touch
That means Rockefeller goes home less often than nearly every other member of Congress, yet his total travel costs are among the highest, all despite representing a state that on a clear day can almost be seen from the Capitol dome.
Rockefeller's 32 trips in the past three years cost taxpayers $141,408 for the chartered aircraft. Meanwhile, 40 members of his staff traveled back and forth regularly for less than half that price, combined. The records don't indicate whether the staffers drove or flew.
For one trip from Feb. 28 to March 1 of this year, for example, "airfare for Sen. Rockefeller Washington DC to Charleston and return" cost $9,657.
His economic development director, Brandy Lynn Messer, made the same trip one month earlier for $300 — and also managed to check in on two other West Virginia towns while she was there.
Rockefeller, whose full name is John Davison Rockefeller IV, is a member of the famously wealth clan descended from the oil baron. And it’s little wonder he prefers to make the home he owns in D.C. his full-time residence.
He owns a palatial mansion worth an estimated $18 million and built on one of the largest housing tracts in the District — 16 acres cordoned off by razor wire and nearly surrounded by parkland in one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, Crestwood, near Rock Creek Park.
It has “11 bathrooms on one floor alone,” the Philadelphia Inquirer noted when Rockefeller bought the estate in 1986.
Meanwhile, the state he represents in the U.S. Senate is one of the poorest in the country, with per capita annual income of $22,000, census figures show.
He has an estimated net worth of more than $100 million, making him the nation's third-richest senator after Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Despite his wealth, Rockefeller not only bills taxpayers for the private plane, he charges them for expenses as small as $12.75 while he is “in and around Charleston.”
Rockefeller's Senate office charters his flights through Martinair Inc., a Virginia company that rents four-seat aircraft for $1,850 an hour, seven-seaters for $2,200 an hour, and 12-seaters for $4,000 an hour, plus fuel and other charges.
On April 21, 2012, for example, the senator billed taxpayers $5,980 for a same-day trip from Washington to Charleston and back, presumably paying for the plane to wait while he did business in the state rather than risk having to spend a night there.
He billed taxpayers $10,654 for a two-day trip on Sept. 5-6, 2013. For 12 of Rockefeller's 32 trips over the past three years, the charter flights alone cost taxpayers more than $7,000.
Fellow Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has been criticized for spending nearly $1 million on taxpayer-funded charter flights over the last three years, but Schumer left Washington four times as often as Rockefeller did and made several stops across the Empire State during most of the trips.
Each time Schumer left Washington, his multistop journeys cost taxpayers an average of $7,941.
It was more common for Rockefeller, on the other hand, to make a simple round-trip from Washington to Charleston and back. The flight alone cost taxpayers an average of $4,419. He collected a separate per diem for each day of his trips and also billed for "incidentals" incurred, like the $12.75.
Only Schumer and one other senator, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, spent more per trip; most senators spent less than $950 on travel per trip, the Examiner’s analysis of Senate disbursement records showed.
Only four members of the Senate traveled home less frequently, each of them members from states far from Washington.
The Examiner asked a spokeswoman for Rockefeller why the senator insisted on traveling on private planes; why he didn’t foot the bill for that preference out of his own pocket; and why he didn’t set foot in the state he represents more often. The spokeswoman did not respond.
Rockefeller, a Democrat, is 77 and has served in the Senate since 1985. Before that, he was governor of West Virginia. He announced plans to retire when his current term ends in January.