WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House committee that handles aviation legislation acknowledged Thursday that he has a "private and personal relationship" with an airline industry lobbyist.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Shelley Rubino, a vice president for global government affairs at Airlines for America, a trade association for major U.S. airlines, doesn't lobby him or his staff.
"Ms. Rubino and I have a private and personal relationship, and out of respect for her and my family that is all I will say about that," Shuster said.
Rubino said in an email: "My personal relationship is separate and unrelated to my work, as it always has been."
A spokeswoman for the trade association, Jean Medina, said the association's president and CEO, Nick Calio, is the chief person who lobbies Shuster for the organization. Calio "has a longstanding relationship with Chairman Shuster, as he did with his father before him," she said.
Shuster represents the same congressional district that was represented by his father, Bud Shuster, who also was the transportation committee chairman. Bud Shuster resigned from the House in early 2001, just months after the House ethics committee rebuked him for "serious official misconduct" involving his close relationship with a former top staffer-turned-lobbyist, Ann Eppard.
The committee found that Bud Shuster engaged in a "pattern and practice" of allowing Eppard to represent clients before his committee within less than one year after leaving the committee's staff. Shuster reportedly stayed at Eppard's house when in Washington.
Bill Shuster, who is divorced, was the top House recipient of airline industry contributions last year, receiving $128,350 in donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Shuster's staff is writing a bill of keen interest to airlines dealing with Federal Aviation Administration programs, and he has also supported several of the industry's top priorities in Congress.
Rubino is listed by the trade association as one of its lobbyists in disclosure forms filed with Congress. The association paid her nearly $460,000 in salary and benefits in 2013, according to tax records.
Shuster recently hired Chris Brown, the trade association's vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, to be staff director on the subcommittee that is writing the FAA bill. Congress typically reauthorizes FAA programs every four to six years. Among the issues the bill is expected to deal with are the agency's plans to modernize the nation's air traffic control system and whether operation of that system should be transferred to a private company controlled by the airline industry.
Shuster's aviation agenda has closely matched the priorities of Airlines for America. He's the sponsor of a bill the House passed to roll back a Transportation Department regulation that requires airlines to display the full price of an airline ticket inclusive of taxes and fees in advertising and on websites where tickets are sold.
He also has expressed support for the U.S. airline industry's position in its battle with Persian Gulf air carriers, which it accuses of exploiting government subsidies. U.S. airlines want the government to restrict the Gulf carriers' access to the U.S. market. The carriers are big customers of aircraft maker Boeing, the U.S.'s largest exporter.
Shuster has also spoken out against new taxes on the airline industry in general. Some lawmakers have urged taxing the billions of dollars airlines earn from baggage and other fees, which are not taxed. And he has reiterated Airlines for America's call for a "national airline policy" — essentially a government effort to promote the financial health of airlines and reduce their taxes, fees and regulation.
Shuster's relationship with Rubino was first reported by Politico.
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