Sen. Richard Burr slammed over 2010 fundraiser that conflicted with military plane hearing

Sen. Richard Burr speaks during a Novo Nordisk groundbreaking ceremony Monday, March 28, 2016 in Clayton, N.C.
Sen. Richard Burr speaks during a Novo Nordisk groundbreaking ceremony Monday, March 28, 2016 in Clayton, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Democrats are blasting U.S. Sen. Richard Burr for scheduling a campaign fundraiser during a 2010 Senate committee hearing on a costly military aircraft.

Burr was scheduled to attend a fundraising luncheon for his re-election campaign at noon on March 11, 2010 – at a time when the Senate Armed Services Committee was meeting on the Joint Strike Fighter program. Senators spent more than two hours during the meeting grilling top Pentagon officials about ballooning costs and other problems with the program, which was developing new military planes.

Burr, a Republican running for re-election, has come under fire recently for missing up to 58 of the 84 Armed Services Committee hearings in 2009 and 2010. When the N.C. Democratic Party brought up the attendance issue last week, Burr spokeswoman Becca Watkins linked the absences to scheduling conflicts because Burr also served on the Veterans Affairs Committee, which often met at the same time. She said Burr has a “near perfect record of attendance” in his current role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the Veterans Affairs Committee didn’t meet on March 11, 2010. Senate meeting records show Burr in attendance that morning when the Armed Services Committee heard testimony on a different topic, but absent when the committee began the Joint Strike Fighter testimony at 11 a.m.

Watkins said he’d had to leave the Armed Services meeting to attend a 10 a.m. meeting of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That meeting wrapped up around noon as Burr’s fundraiser was scheduled to start, records show.

Neither Watkins nor Burr’s campaign spokesman, Jesse Hunt, responded to questions about whether Burr attended the scheduled fundraiser. According to an event invitation and a POLITICO report, the fundraiser was held at Johnny’s Half Shell, a seafood restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol. Tickets ranged from $500 to $2,000, and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander was the “special guest.”

While he wouldn’t confirm or refute Burr’s attendance at the fundraiser, Hunt pointed to the senator’s attendance at the earlier portion of the Armed Services Committee meeting that day. “As noted by official U.S. Senate records, Richard Burr attended the hearing in question,” he said.

Burr also missed two Armed Services Committee meetings in 2009 when breakfast fundraisers were scheduled on the same morning. But Watkins says the fundraising events ended before the meetings began, and Burr was absent because he was meeting with constituents and conducting “local media interviews” during the meetings.

The N.C. Democratic Party criticized Burr’s absence from the Joint Strike Fighter hearing. “Now we know Sen. Burr missed at least one of his Armed Services Committee hearings for a fundraiser – and it’s shameful that the hearing was about an issue so important to our state,” party spokesman Matt Kravitz said Wednesday. “Still, this hardly answers why he missed nearly 70 percent of all his hearings while serving on the committee, and Sen. Burr should release his full schedule to account for those absences.”

If the controversy sounds familiar, it’s because the 2014 Senate race featured a similar issue.

Two years ago, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was criticized for missing 27 of 50 open Senate Armed Forces Committee meetings in 2013 and 2014. She acknowledged that one of the absences – from a classified hearing on national threats – was to attend a campaign fundraiser in New York.

Hagan’s Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, pounced with a series of ads highlighting the absence. Tillis’ advisers later said the issue had a big impact on his victory.

Burr’s campaign has also been raising an attendance issue with Democrat Deborah Ross’ tenure in the state House. Ross, Burr’s challenger, missed 150 House votes in 2009 and 2010, representing 9 percent of all votes taken during that period.

Some of the missed votes took place while Ross was traveling abroad on educational trips sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

A Burr campaign news release last week said “Ross’ preference for global travel over doing the work of the people in her district shows just how irresponsible Ross was during her time in the General Assembly.” Ross’s campaign retorted that some of Burr’s staff have participated in events sponsored by the institute.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter