ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Taxpayers picked up the $35,050 tab for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder to spend at least 329 nights at hotels in St. Louis and St. Louis County since 2006, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.
The newspaper said the price tag, which doesn't include the cost of meals on those trips or the hotel and meal cost for dozens of trips elsewhere in the state, is much higher than what his predecessor and other statewide elected officials charged the state. For instance, Democrat Joe Maxwell, who was lieutenant governor before Kinder, was reimbursed for less than $2,500 for hotel stays in Missouri during his four years in office from 2000 to 2005.
However, Kinder defended himself, telling The Associated Press he was audited in 2007 and 2010 by Democratic auditors and that the hotel stays were never an issue. He said in a phone interview that the story is a "search-and-destroy mission" and "a put-up job by Democratic operatives from beginning to end."
Kinder, a likely gubernatorial candidate who has a home in Cape Girardeau and an office in Jefferson City, also defended the stays in a pre-emptive rebuttal opinion piece that ran in the St. Louis Business Journal on Friday. In it, he said the hotel stays demonstrated his commitment to St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch reported that he also made at least 38 taxpayer-paid hotel stays in Kansas City and 22 in Springfield.
"The St. Louis region is almost half of the state's population so it is reasonable that a full-time Lt. Governor would stay in the region often," his office said in a four-page statement issued before the story ran.
The Post-Dispatch reported that sometimes it was society balls, baseball games and political events that prompted visits to St. Louis and that Kinder often listed no official reason on his expense reports. Kinder said in a follow-up statement Sunday that he had official meetings each time he sought reimbursement.
He said he recognizes Missouri's financial situation and has cut costs.
"Even with the rising cost of gasoline, I parked my state car and have paid for all vehicle travel personally or through my campaign," he said in Sunday's statement.
The paper also pointed out that most of the stays were at either the upscale Chase Park Plaza hotel or the Four Seasons. Kinder told the AP in a phone interview that he stayed at a discounted government rate of $105 per night -- the Post-Dispatch said it was $120 with tax -- and that sometimes he was able to negotiate less costly rates.
"Many times the Hampton Inn will charge you more," he told the AP.
Among the visits, Kinder has billed the state three times to attend events organized by tea party groups, which often are critical of what they describe as excessive government spending. Video from one of the events is posted on Kinder's campaign website.
Kinder's office said it was appropriate to charge the state for expenses related to the event because "invitations were sent to his official office, addressed to him as Lt. Governor, and requested his official presence at the event."
"The Tea Party is a grass-roots movement of Missouri taxpayers that have every right to request the presence of state officials," according to the statement issued before the story appeared.
Tea party activist Chuck MacNab from St. Charles County told the Post-Dispatch that "in view of all of the profligate spending in the trillions" nationally, he doesn't think taxpayers mind paying $120 to put Kinder up in a nice hotel for the night.
"He's the lieutenant governor," MacNab said. "He's not chopped liver."
The travel claims stirred up Democratic criticism.
"Particularly at a time when families are saving money to make ends meet, it's unconscionable to think that Peter Kinder is asking Missouri taxpayers to pay for his odd and extravagant lifestyle," said Matt Teter, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, in a statement Sunday. "Peter Kinder can live the high-life in luxury hotels and casinos if he wants, but when he asks Missouri taxpayers to pick up the bill, it becomes an issue of very serious public concern."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)