No, Nancy Pelosi doesn't routinely fly around in an Air Force One-sized jet.
Yes, she extends the Speaker Shuttle perk to her family and colleagues.
The next speaker will control the House of Representatives, and with it one of the biggest perks in politics: free flights on luxury jets that are the military versions of a Gulfstream V. Well, they're free to the speaker, but paid for by your tax dollars.
How much? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office says it doesn't receive "comprehensive cost estimates." Military documents indicate a one-way flight for the current speaker (between Washington D.C. and California) costs, on average, $28,210.
Figuring out the details about the so-called "Speaker Shuttle" service and how it's been used isn't easy. The information is undeniably public in nature, but it's not readily-available. Our attempts to contact the office of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert went unanswered. Pelosi's office provided some information, but a spokesman told us the office simply don't keep track of what types of planes Pelosi flies where and who's aboard.
The military does track all of that, but getting the answers requires filing a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. It can take months for a FOIA response to be answered, and then the material provided is jumbled chronologically and often incomplete.
For this investigation, CBS News examined several thousand documents obtained from our FOIA requests and those from other organizations, as well as material provided by Pelosi's office.
The Roots of the Speaker Shuttle:
It was after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that the president offered the speaker of the House, second in the presidential line of succession, the security of military travel to and from his district. Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) took advantage of the offer, and often took along his wife and members of his staff.
Records indicate that most often, Hastert (at left) and whoever was with him flew on a 12-seater Gulfstream III. The Speaker Shuttle first became controversial when it was discovered that Hastert dispatched it in 2006 to transport a colleague to a press conference. The colleague was Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), and he was helping defend Hastert amid the Mark Foley page scandal.
Today, Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) regularly uses the military jets to travel to and from California, where she lives. Nine years after Sept. 11, her office says the service is still necessary for security reasons.
Yet security concerns were not cited by Assistant Defense Secretary Robert Wilkie when he discussed the shuttle service in 2007. The military shuttle support would be provided "as a courtesy in recognition of your position as Speaker of the House," says a letter from Wilkie to Pelosi on Feb. 7, 2007.
It continues: "Since the plan for continuity of the Presidency does not include routine use of military airlift for the Speaker of the House, this support is provided without any specific basis to your standing as Presidential successor or position in the line of succession."
The House Sergeant at Arms, who is elected by Members of Congress, issued a statement Oct. 1, 2010 saying he requested military aircraft for the speaker's use "based upon security concerns... Ongoing security assessments of the Speaker warrant continued use of such aircraft." Though security is a stated concern, no known directive requires the Speaker to use military transport.
"We can debate whether or not that type of security is required, or whether that security ought to mean luxury-style jets provided for by the military," says Tom Fitton of the conservative group JudicialWatch. "But either way, it's an expensive program."
Early in Pelosi's tenure as Speaker, allegations surfaced that she wanted a bigger plane to make the cross-country flights from Washington D.C. to California. The military version of a Boeing 757 with 45-50 business class seats would fit the bill. That prompted objections and outrage among Republicans, who accused Pelosi of trying to assign herself unprecedented perks at extraordinary taxpayer expense.
For her part, Pelosi said she never asked for a 757. "It's not a question of size, it's a question of distance," Pelosi told reporters on Feb. 8, 2007. "We want an aircraft that can reach California" without refueling.
Pelosi's friend Congressman John Murtha, who oversaw the military budget at the time, admitted he called the Defense Department about a plane on Pelosi's behalf, but he didn't make details of his request public. Pelosi's office attributed the request for a different plane to the Sergeant at Arms, who released a statement saying he asked the military for a plane that could make non-stop flights "for security purposes... This will ensure communications capabilities and also enhance security."
Amid the political furor, the military assured the public that Pelosi would continue to travel much as her predecessor had: usually on a 12-seater. The luxurious Gulfstream V was capable of making the trip to or from California without stopping for fuel, and would be used whenever it was available. But in March of 2007, the military had to schedule an older model Gulfstream III for two of Pelosi's shuttle trips. Records show a Pelosi aide pressed the matter in an email to the military. "Is there nothing that can be done to get a non-stop flight?"
By December of 2008, the military and a Pelosi spokesman told Factcheck.org that the Speaker had only used the military version of a 757, the giant C-32, on one occasion: when no other planes were available. Since then, a spokesman tells CBS News Pelosi has opted to travel on commercial airlines if only a 757-sized military jet was otherwise available.
From her first month in office, even before the Feb. 7, 2007 policy guidance from the military, records indicate Pelosi began extending the perk of the Speaker Shuttle to Democratic colleagues. By March 15, 2007 Pelosi had invited members of Congress Mike Thompson, Barbara Lee (pictured), Anna Eshoo, George Miller, Ellen Tauscher and Jerry McNerney, all Democrats from California, to hitch rides with her on various Speaker Shuttle flights -- some multiple times.
Records indicate Pelosi was the first to use routinely invite fellow members of Congress aboard the Speaker Shuttle. Yet the issue of whether the extra passengers would pay for the rides, and if so, how much; hadn't been agreed upon. That was addressed in an email exchange between military officials and the Speaker's Counsel in March of 2007.
"The equitable rate" of reimbursement, says Pelosi's Counsel Bernard Raimo, "seems to be what the Member would pay for a similar coach flight at the government rate."
Fitton, the conservative watchdog, argues it's inappropriate for the speaker to hand out first-class travel perks to favored colleagues who merely pay the price of a government coach fare. "Reimbursing the military or the government at the commercial rate does not nearly cover the costs, which are exponentially greater than any commercial ticket," Fitton said.
When asked to respond, Pelosi's spokesman told us it's the military that sets the rate for reimbursement. Yet the March 2007 email exchanges put the decision squarely in the speaker's hands. "Please advise us of your final decision," says the military official. "We'll go with the government rate," answers Speaker Counsel Raimo.
Since then, records indicate the Congressional passenger list on the Speaker Shuttle has grown to also include from time-to-time Zoe Lofgren, Sam Farr, Lynn Woolsey, Jackie Speier and John Garamendi; all Democrats from California.
According to available records, Pelosi began inviting her family members aboard the Speaker Shuttle less than two months after she became Speaker. Like Hastert, she often takes her spouse (with no reimbursement required). She also extends the privilege to other family members. Listed among the passengers on a Feb. 22, 2007 flight from San Francisco to Washington D.C. are husband Paul Pelosi, daughter Christine and son Paul.
A little more than a month later, an internal military email exchange makes it clear that Pelosi's family travel was not a one-time occurrence. Nor was it isolated to her husband and grown children.
"Speaker wants to put the following on her flight from SFO (San Francisco) to Andrews (Air Force Base)," says the April 2, 2007 email. "Daughter, son-in-law, infant grandson... Who authorizes the son-in-law and infant grandson?"
After some discussion, the military agreed to the extra passengers but noted, "Believe it is prudent policy for us to ask for reimbursement for all her travelling companions." Available records do not show individual reimbursement rates. Pelosi's office says her family members comply with all reimbursement rules, which require the equivalent of a commercial coach air fare.
Partial list of Pelosi family travel on the Speaker Shuttle (in addition to her husband) according to military documents:
Feb. 22, 2007 - San Francisco to D.C.
April 15, 2007 - San Francisco to D.C.
Son-in-Law Michael Vos
Grandson Paul Vos
June 15, 2007 - D.C. to San Francisco
July 9, 2007 - San Francisco to D.C.
Sept. 29, 2007 - D.C. to San Francisco
March 16, 2008 - San Francisco to D.C.
June 3, 2008 - San Francisco to D.C.
June 26, 2008 - D.C. to San Francisco
June 20, 2009 - D.C. to San Francisco
July 2, 2009 - D.C. to California
By the end of 2008, Pelosi had been speaker for nearly two years. But the military was about to confront another controversy regarding her use of the Speaker Shuttle. According to a Dec. 9, 2008 military email, the Speaker Shuttle was at San Francisco International Airport as usual, waiting to take her back to Washington D.C. The email said that Pelosi wanted the jet to be moved, or "repositioned," just 51 miles away to Travis Air Force Base, closer to her Napa Valley home but far outside of her district.
"(T)he jet will not reposition to Travis," says a military official, "Jet will depart from SFO."
"(W)hy can't the jet reposition to Travis?" asks another military official. "You know this is a firestorm waiting to happen."
"We can't reposition the airplane such a short distance. It is not a judicial use of the asset. It is too expensive to operate the jet when there is truly no need to do so."
The exchange between apparently frustrated military officials continues.
"You know I understand and feel with you...but, this is a battle that we are bound to lose if we tell the speaker office..I wish that I could say this is a one-time request, but we know it will probably happen again in the future. We know you are correct in your justification, but this is still the request from the speaker's office."
"We have never done this in the past. The deal is from (the Office of the Secretary of Defense and) the White House that the Speaker shuttle is from DC to SFO and back. We will not resposition. We do not reposition for convenience, even for the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense). It is not too far of a drive from Travis to SFO. Did the (Air Force) escort suggest to the Speaker that this is ok? If so, I hope you guys correct them immediately. If you agree with me that I am correct, then you need to stay strong and present the facts to the Speaker's office."
"She lives about 1.5 hours from SFO and much closer to Travis... From our point of view, it is difficult to tell the speaker that we can't support her when the whole reason we have a jet is to support her. Whether it is the best use of assets is not the question, but instead is it worth upsetting the speaker due to what really amounts to a rather minor point?"
From there, the record drops off.
We asked Pelosi's office to respond to the controversy and they told us, "We have no record of any request to reposition an aircraft." They also said the Speaker Shuttle was "repositioned" once, in Oct. 2009, but that it was the military's call not the Speaker's.
Newly-released records show that the "repositioning" controversy may have been resolved by the military simply agreeing to fly the jet directly to or from Travis AFB when Pelosi requested it. In summer and early fall of 2009, records show the Speaker Shuttle made at least 8 trips to or from Travis AFB.
Is it Necessary?
Pelosi's office says she travels far more frequently on commercial airlines than she does on the Speaker Shuttle. Critics like Fitton say if the Speaker truly does need special security to and from her district, it doesn't have to be in the form of her own jet with two Capitol Police and Air Force escort(s) on every flight.
"The Speaker's office seems to be treating the military like a taxi service as opposed to men and women defending our country," say Fitton. "We're fighting two wars and... it costs tens of thousands of dollars to shepherd just one trip for Speaker Pelosi between Washington D.C. and San Francisco. She seems to treat that as an entitlement."
Pelosi's office responded by saying "the Sergeant at Arms has requested the Defense Department provide this security measure, which has been regularly provided to the Office of the Speaker of the House since 9/11. The Speaker, just as the President of the United States, has no role in determining what security procedures and measures are taken based on law enforcement assessments."
We wanted to know the position of the next Speaker of the House when it comes to use of the military shuttle. If Republicans win control of the House in November, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio.) is considered a likely candidate for Speaker. When we asked about it, a Boehner spokesman told us "he hasn't discussed the issue."
Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News Investigative Correspondent based in Washington. You can read more of her posts in Hotsheet here.