Tuesday, April 10, 2012

AZ Fact Check Calls Cardon Campaign Ad Attacking Jeff Flake 'Misleading'

The issue: Rep. Flake's international travel expenses

by Dan Nowicki - April 4, 2012, 11:19 am


Race: U.S. senator
Party: Republican
Target: U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake

What we're looking at

An online campaign ad by Mesa investor and U.S. Senate candidate Wil Cardon accuses rival U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake of vacationing around the world at taxpayer expense.

The comment

"Career politician Jeff Flake enjoys the perks of Washington with his non-stop international travel," the narrator in Cardon's "Flake Air" (Part One) campaign Web video says.

The forum

Campaign Web video posted Feb. 13, 2012, on YouTube and at the Cardon campaign's FlakeAir.com website.


Cardon's campaign produced a two-part Web video series titled "Flake Air" that attacks Flake, his chief Senate Republican primary rival. Part One charges that Flake "enjoys the perks of Washington with his non-stop international travel" and has taken advantage of taxpayer-funded trips "to European vacation spots, exotic locales and warmer climates during winter" for ostensibly recreational or personal purposes.

The Arizona Republic reported in 2008 that Flake, now in his sixth term in Congress, had taken more official overseas trips at the time than the state's other seven House members. Flake's wife, Cheryl, accompanied him on one such visit to Brazil, The Republic said. This story is cited as the main source for the Cardon campaign's Web-video attack on Flake as a profligate spender of taxpayer money on travel expenses.

While Flake's travel record is fair fodder for debate in a political race -- the Flake campaign counters that the 40 or so trips he took over 10 years were legitimate fact-finding visits related to his service on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee -- the Cardon Web videos take liberties with The Republic's reporting and masthead and use photos of Flake on a beach taken during a privately financed vacation to present the information in a misleading light.

The original "Flake Air" video highlights the countries Flake visited that may generate a visceral reaction among spending-conscious voters, such as Greece, Brazil, China, Micronesia, Australia, New Zealand, "the exotic Marshall Islands," Singapore, Fiji and others. Cardon's video also mentions Paris. Flake says he landed there in 2004 only as a refueling/pilot-rest stop en route to Iraq and Kuwait. Also not mentioned by the Cardon campaign are the countries Flake visited that have less U.S. tourist appeal, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Flake and other U.S. lawmakers also made an official 2005 trip to Sri Lanka and Thailand several months after a major tsunami in connection with relief efforts.

While The Republic story cited by the Cardon campaign did call out Flake as the biggest traveler among Arizona's House delegation, it also noted that "he is hardly a prolific traveler compared with other members of Congress, records show." Former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., for example, took 28 taxpayer-paid trips between 2003 and 2006, the most of any member of Congress during that time period, the newspaper reported. The story does not back up the Cardon campaign's assertion that Flake indulges in "non-stop international travel."

The Cardon video also lifts the line about "European vacation spots, exotic locales and warmer climates during winter" somewhat out of context from the Republic article. While some of the countries visited by Flake arguably do fit that description, the Republic reporter used it in reference to congressional travel in general and did not direct it at Flake specifically.

Here is the line in its proper context: "Lawmakers say that their trips are far from enjoyable vacations and that their schedules are packed with meetings and fact-finding briefings. But critics say the trips often raise red flags, especially when they involve travel to Paris or other European vacation spots, exotic locales such as China or warmer climates during winter. Taking spouses along also can raise suspicions, some say.

"To illustrate the Republic quote, the Cardon video uses a photo of a shirtless Flake taken during a personally paid 2009 vacation in the Marshall Islands, the group of mid-Pacific atolls that he previously visited on a congressional trip in 2004. Flake garnered national attention in 2009 after he spent a week alone on one of the deserted islands, living off the sea and land a la Robinson Crusoe. No taxpayer money or resources were used on that trip, according to the Flake campaign. Yet Cardon's first "Flake Air" video relied on a total of three photos taken during that personal adventure in order to give viewers a false impression that Flake was participating in recreational beach activities while he was supposed to be on official business. The Flake island photos appeared on the Washington Post's website.

Cardon's second "Flake Air" video contains a flagrant abuse of The Republic's masthead. It attributes to The Republic this quote: "Does Flake travel internationally at taxpayer expense? Of course, he does." That quote never appeared in The Arizona Republic. It's from an independent blog post by political consultant Nathan Sproul that was hosted on azcentral.com, the newspaper's website. It also was taken out of context. Sproul actually was defending Flake's congressional travel, but a casual viewer of the video would take it as the newspaper siding with Cardon's argument.

Bottom line:
It is not surprising that Flake's congressional travel has attracted criticism from a political foe, particularly in an election year when deficit-cutting and limiting spending are among the battle cries heard from the right. But Cardon's two "Flake Air" videos present a distorted and exaggerated picture of Flake's record.


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