Contractor Lends Wings to Graves

Posted December 3, 2007 at 6:33pm

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) has accepted perhaps thousands of dollars worth of free flight time in a vintage airplane owned by a contracting firm in his district that also is a major source of funds for Graves’ campaigns.

Graves has never reported on House financial disclosure reports that he has been using the firm’s airplane, and in news accounts of his travels, the airplane — which is decorated with a sticker reading “Sam Graves, Pilot” — is described as his.

Ethics experts say Graves’ failure to disclose the flights as a gift may be a violation of House ethics rules.

In July 2006, Graves flew the vintage barnstorming airplane — a 1943 Boeing “Super Stearman” — to a hobbyist air show in Oshkosh, Wis., telling organizers he planned to browse the show for parts and techniques for his airplane construction projects back home. During the event, Graves also was scheduled to be part of a panel discussing federal user fees for private pilots.

In April 2007, Graves piloted the plane to an aerial event in Chillicothe, Mo., on the west side of his district, where he “put on a brief air show for the enjoyment of the crowd,” according to the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune.

Sources in the state say Graves frequently flies the airplane to events around the district.

According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the airplane is registered to the Herzog Contracting Corp., a transportation contracting firm in St. Joseph, Mo., that also has been one of the largest contributors to Graves. According to Federal Election Commission records, Herzog company employees have provided Graves just more than $72,000 in campaign contributions since 2000, and the Herzog Contracting Corp. PAC has kicked in another $13,000 to Graves’ campaigns.

The company also has donated about $150,000 since 2002 to a state-level campaign committee called the Republican Sixth Congressional District Committee.

Nevertheless, in one photograph the sticker bearing Graves’ name is clearly visible painted under the pilot seat — above the much larger “Bill Herzog” sticker. William Herzog is the president of Herzog Contracting.

Graves spokesman Jason Klindt said the Congressman does not own the plane and does not pay for using it. “He has flown it on occasion to air shows,” Klindt said. “He pays for the gas in it.”

Klindt said Graves “logged less than 10 hours in it this past year.” The Stearman “is a plane that is flown by other members of the regional flying club,” Klindt said. “He is one of a handful of people who borrow it … it is no different than borrowing somebody’s car for a few hours.” The cockpit decal bearing Graves’ name is simply a removable sticker that “he puts on every plane he flies.”

Ethics experts said that since he is not paying for the use of the plane, Graves may be accepting an improper gift from Herzog.

Planes similar to the Stearman that Graves flies are listed for sale on a hobbyist Web site from $100,000 to $150,000.

Roll Call located only one company that that would rent a Stearman to a pilot, charging $154 per hour. The Ohio company requires the pilot to carry $100,000 of insurance and the renter may not land the plane at any other airport unless they fly with an instructor. Other companies around the country that rent similar airplanes say the general practice is for the owner to take passengers on joy rides, with a going rate of around $300 an hour.

Thus Graves’ four-hour one-way flight to Oshkosh would have a market value of at least $600, and possibly much more.

The Congressman has not listed the use of the plane as a gift from Herzog on his financial disclosure forms.

Marc Elias, a lawyer at Perkins Coie who advises Democrats on ethics issues, said the problem for Graves “is that there is clearly value to the use of an airplane for recreational purposes.” Since he is not paying for it, that value becomes a gift from the owner of the plane to Graves, and Graves would not be able to accept that gift unless it was approved in advance by the ethics committee and reported on his disclosure forms.

Graves has listed on his financial disclosure forms several flights he has accepted on Herzog jets to NASCAR events. Jimmie Johnson, the driver who won the NASCAR championship this year and last, used to drive a Herzog Motorsports car.

In requesting approval for one of those flights last November, Graves told the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct it was a gift from corporate Vice President Stanley Herzog, a close personal friend with no business before Congress. But Herzog Services Inc. — a rail-testing company that is a subsidiary of Herzog Contracting operating out of the same St. Joseph headquarters — has been paying the lobbying firm of Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell $120,000 a year since 2001 for lobbying services relating to railroad issues and transportation funding. Herzog Contracting paid Ann Eppard Associates $400,000 between 2001 and 2006 for transportation lobbying assistance.

Graves is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has served on the Subcommittee on Railroads since 2003.

Graves also has taken credit for a $9.6 million earmark in the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill for construction of a 1.8-mile extension of Riverside Road, which will connect the road to U.S. Highway 169 on the east side of St. Joseph.

According to local officials, the road project is a top priority for economic development in the city because it will ease access to that section of town, including a planned business park that is being developed along the route of the earmark. Andrew Clements, assistant director of the city’s Office of Public Works and Transportation, said the city has “recognized for about 20 years the need for that extension to provide additional capacity and improve congestion” in that part of town.

But the road extension also appears to be very good for Herzog. The Herzog corporate headquarters building is on Riverside Road, and the city — in close negotiations with Herzog, according to local officials — designed an overpass into the project to raise the road over railroad tracks that are used by rail cars traveling to and from another nearby Herzog facility. Buchanan County property records also indicate that Herzog entities own several significant tracts of land in the area where the new road is being built, though a local official says none of the Herzog lands directly front onto the new road.

Stanley Herzog did not return repeated calls requesting comment.

Klindt said Graves supported the earmark only because it was a priority for local economic development officials. “Sam supports St. Joseph and its priorities,” Klindt said.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) also claimed credit for the earmark, issuing a press release stating that “as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bond secured $9.6 million for the Riverside Road Extension in the Fiscal Year 2005 Omnibus Appropriations bill.”

But in an October 2006 press release, Graves claimed an active role in advancing the project. According to that release, Graves “formed an advisory committee in 2001 that made recommendations for improvements to the transportation infrastructure. In 2002, the Congressman toured the sites of the proposed projects and worked with officials from the Missouri Department of Transportation on creating a plan. In 2003, Graves worked with coalition officials to help push Congress to fund this project.”