For the millions of voters getting to know him, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, portrays himself at times as an average guy who takes the train to work, frets about money and basically has led a middle-class life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your kitchen table is like mine,” Mr. Biden said when Senator Barack Obama introduced him as his running mate. “You sit there at night after you put the kids to bed and you talk, you talk about what you need. You talk about how much you are worried about being able to pay the bills.”
Mr. Biden certainly can trace his roots to the working-class neighborhoods of Scranton, Pa., and Claymont, Del., where he was raised. But these days, his kitchen table can be found in a 6,800-square-foot custom-built colonial-style house on four lakefront acres, a property worth close to $3 million.
Although he is among the least wealthy members of the millionaires club that is the United States Senate — he and his wife, Jill, a college professor, earn about $250,000 a year — Mr. Biden maintains a lifestyle that is more comfortable than the impression he may have given on the campaign trail. A review of his finances found that when it comes to some of his largest expenses, like the purchase and upkeep of his home and his use of Amtrak trains to get around, he has benefited from resources and relationships not available to average Americans.
As a secure incumbent who has rarely faced serious competition during 35 years in the Senate, Mr. Biden has been able to dip into his campaign treasury to spend thousands of dollars on home landscaping and some of his Amtrak travel between Wilmington, Del., where he lives, and Washington. And the acquisition of his waterfront property a decade ago involved wealthy businessmen and campaign supporters, some of them bankers with an interest in legislation before the Senate, who bought his old house for top dollar, sold him four acres at cost and lent him $500,000 to build his new home.
There is nothing to suggest Mr. Biden bent any rules in the sale, purchase and financing of his homes. Rather, he appears to have benefited at times from the simple fact of who he is: a United States senator, not just “Amtrak Joe,” the train-riding everyman that the Obama-Biden campaign has deployed to rally middle-class voters.
“He was a V.I.P., so he was treated accordingly by the bank,” said Ronald Tennant, a former loan officer who handled the mortgages Mr. Biden used to build his house. The bank did not give him a below-market interest rate, a perk that has caused embarrassment for some other members of Congress. But, Mr. Tennant said, “We paid particularly close attention to make sure everything came out right.”
Mr. Biden’s campaign said that he neither received special treatment nor offered any to the people he has dealt with in real estate and banking, and that he had not left a misleading impression of his wealth with voters. The senator, said David Wade, his spokesman, “has never forgotten where he came from, or how he grew up, and those middle-class values motivate his work for the middle class.”
“He appreciates,” Mr. Wade continued, “that with his income as a senator he has been blessed to live comfortably, provide for his family, send his kids to college, and have the home his family dreamed of.”
As for the payments by Mr. Biden’s campaign committee, Citizens for Biden, his aides insisted they were not used to cover the senator’s living expenses, which would be illegal. Election lawyers said that the law does not spell out all the ways an officeholder could benefit personally from the use of campaign money, and that regulators are generally reluctant to challenge the justifications campaign committees use.
Mr. Biden’s campaign said the payments to tree trimmers and lawn services, typically totaling a few thousand dollars a year, were permissible because they were tied to political events at his home. Jim Whittaker, co-owner of Grass Roots Inc., which was paid $4,345 in 2000, said the payment probably represented several visits to the senator’s property, adding that Mr. Biden was “late paying the bill one time.”
“We cut the grass and put sod down for him, did spring cleanups, mulching and knocked down vegetation,” Mr. Whittaker said. “One time we did a mulching job and he was having an event, but I don’t know if it was political or just for friends.”
Beyond landscaping costs, one of the Biden campaign’s largest regular expenditures is for Amtrak tickets for the senator and his aides or consultants. Going back to 2001, those expenses typically ranged from $9,000 to $15,000 a year — far exceeding that of his colleagues in Delaware’s Congressional delegation, whose campaigns spent between $500 and $3,000, federal election records show. Like Mr. Biden, Delaware’s other senator, Thomas R. Carper, and Representative Michael N. Castle commute daily to Washington, their offices said.
Commuting on the train to and from Washington is an expensive proposition, $84 round trip from Wilmington or $1,062 for a monthly pass, although Amtrak offers a little-known discount for federal employees traveling on business. Senators cannot use their office travel allowance for commuting, according to a spokesman for the Senate Rules Committee.
But Mr. Biden’s aides acknowledged he sometimes uses campaign money to pay for trips if they “involved a meeting or event related to his campaign.” They could not explain why his campaign’s Amtrak expenditures are relatively high, other than to point out that they would include travel by his staff and consultants, as do those of other politicians.
The Biden campaign’s Amtrak expenses have remained high even in years without elections, when he was not actively campaigning and his committee retained a handful of part-time staff members and almost no consultants. In 2003, for instance — after he had just easily won re-election to another six-year term — his committee spent $10,874 on Amtrak tickets; that same year, the campaigns of Senator Carper and Representative Castle spent $1,257 and $589, respectively.
Mr. Biden’s Amtrak travel is the stuff of Washington lore. He started making the 90-minute trips each day to be with his young sons after his first wife died in 1972, and he has continued ever since. On the stump, Mr. Biden cites his commute as a way to connect with voters; last month he brought reporters along to chronicle a ride.
At least by Senate standards, Mr. Biden does not have to try too hard to underscore his relative lack of wealth. He has long shouldered a heavy debt load; he obtained or refinanced mortgages 29 times since he was elected in 1972, and currently owes $730,000 on two mortgages on his home. In addition, he has had several personal loans, including one for up to $50,000 secured by the cash value of six life insurance policies.
Mr. Biden supplements his $165,000 Senate salary with a stipend from teaching a college course. His biggest boost came a few years ago, when he collected $225,000 in advances for his best-selling memoir. The Bidens have several checking accounts with less than $15,000 each, and Jill Biden’s retirement fund with between $15,000 to $50,000, according to their tax returns and Mr. Biden’s Senate financial disclosure reports. The couple reported virtually no investment income last year, and their largest asset by far was their home.
Mr. Biden previously lived for 21 years in a 10,000-square-foot former DuPont mansion in Greenville, which he bought in 1975 for $185,000 after learning it was slated for demolition.
After extensive renovations, he sold it in February 1996, through word of mouth, to John R. Cochran III, the vice chairman of MBNA, one of the nation’s largest credit card companies. He agreed to pay Mr. Biden’s full asking price, $1.2 million. MBNA reimbursed Mr. Cochran for a loss he took on the sale of his old home, according to a 1997 securities filing, which said the company requested that he move to Delaware from Maryland.
Mr. Cochran, who still lives at the house, could not be reached for comment.
The real estate deal was just one facet of a close relationship between Mr. Biden and MBNA, which donated more than $200,000 to his campaigns. The Delaware-based company gave a job to Mr. Biden’s son Hunter; flew Senator Biden and his wife to the Maine coast, where Mr. Biden spoke at a company retreat; and its former chief executive, Charles M. Cawley, donated at least $22,500 to a nonprofit breast cancer fund started by Jill Biden.
MBNA also was an aggressive advocate of bankruptcy reform legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Mr. Biden was a senior member and its former chairman. The legislation would make it harder for consumers to escape credit card debts.
Mr. Wade said there was nothing improper in Mr. Biden’s dealings with Mr. Cochran. He said the sale price was supported by an appraisal for the same amount, and that Mr. Biden never did MBNA any favors in the Senate.
In acquiring a site for his new house, Mr. Biden bought the lakeside parcel in Wilmington in March 1996 from Keith D. Stoltz, a real estate executive who once lived adjacent to the property and sold it to the senator for $350,000, the same price he paid for it five years earlier. In an e-mail message, Mr. Stoltz said the price was reasonable because the real estate market was soft and he had paid a premium for the lot so he could keep it undeveloped.
“Joe initially offered me $300,000 for the lot and I declined his offer,” he said.
Mr. Stoltz and several of his relatives have since given a total of about $33,000 in campaign donations to Mr. Biden over the years. He said the senator has never done anything “either formally or informally” to help his company.
To build his house, Mr. Biden turned to Beneficial National Bank. Its executives were active in state politics in Delaware, major campaign contributors to both parties nationally and advocates of changes to bankruptcy policy.
Not long before Mr. Biden obtained his construction loan from Beneficial in July 1997, he had offered to nominate the bank’s chairman, James H. Gilliam Jr., for a federal judge’s post in Delaware, according to news accounts of Mr. Gilliam’s death in 2003. Mr. Gilliam, a lawyer who also headed a state judiciary nomination panel and donated to Mr. Biden’s campaigns, declined the offer and recommended someone else, whom Mr. Biden nominated in June 1997.
Mr. Biden’s campaign said that his dealings with Mr. Gilliam had nothing to do with the $634,000 in loans he received from Beneficial, adding that Mr. Biden had other reasons to consider Mr. Gilliam, who would have been Delaware’s first African-American federal judge.
Mr. Biden, who said in his book that he designed his house “from the ground up,” saw it finished it time to move in for Christmas 1998, although the work of maintaining it never seemed complete. Recounting how he was once interrupted by a presidential phone call while he was outside watering newly planted cypress trees, he lamented that “even after a few years on the property, there was still landscaping to be done.”
McIntire and Kovaleski