Lawmakers’ Charter Jet Travel Ban Clipped by Devin Nunes Ruling

  • FEC dismisses complaint against congressman’s private flight
  • House in 2007 prohibited members’ non commercial air travel

The skies may open again for charter and private flights by House lawmakers after regulators rebuffed a challenge to air travel paid for by a leadership PAC associated with Rep. Devin Nunes.

The Federal Election Commission’s dismissal of the Nunes (R-Calif.) case, on a deadlocked vote, cast doubt on whether the House can enforce its ban on noncommercial air travel for members.

“If it becomes understood that these rules are essentially a dead letter, it’s quite likely that more House members will ignore them,” said Dan Weiner, a former FEC attorney who now works at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice. “The majority of both Republicans and Democrats who care about following the law because it is the right thing to do lose out to the minority who don’t care.”

Devin_Nunes_062019
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Rep. Devin Nunes

Nunes’ leadership political action committee, New PAC, paid $5,518 to air charter company Paramount Business Jets in 2018, according to FEC disclosure reports. The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center then filed a complaint with the commission alleging the payment violated the House ban on private and charter air travel and FEC rules.

The FEC’s two Republicans voted to approve a recommendation by staff attorneys to dismiss the complaint, according to documents released by the FEC June 7. Staff said the case should be dropped due to “prosecutorial discretion” because it didn’t involve a serious violation of the law.

The two commissioners recommended by Democrats voted against dismissing the case.

“We are pleased that yet another frivolous politically motivated allegation made against Congressman Nunes has been dismissed, and appreciate the speed with which the FEC disposed of it,” Elliott Berke, an attorney with the Nunes PAC , said in an email.

Complainants can challenge in court FEC dismissals of enforcement matters, but the courts often defer to the commission’s judgment. This has been especially true when the commission cites the discretion to decide which cases are worth its time and resources.

Deadlocked votes dividing Democratic and Republican commissioners have plagued the FEC in recent years, eroding limits on raising and spending campaign money as enforcement cases are delayed or dismissed.

Lax Campaign Law Enforcement May Empower Big Money in 2020

Abramoff Scandal

A 2007 act that toughened lobbying disclosure rules and ethics requirements for Congress (Public Law 110-81) restricted payments of campaign funds by House candidates and leadership PACs for non-commercial air travel, except on aircraft owned by a candidate or family member. The law was adopted following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which spotlighted high-priced private jet travel by lawmakers, including a golf trip to Saint Andrews, Scotland, by former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).

Nune’s New PAC reported in an FEC form filed in 2018 that it paid for “air transportation” to Leesburg, Va.-based Paramount Business Jets, whose website says it delivers “a personalized private jet charter experience like no other.” The company charges hourly rates from $1,200 to $23,000, according to the website.

Besides the cost, no other details about the air travel were provided in the PAC’s report.

Berke argued the PAC complied with commission regulations requiring payments to companies certified as commercial air carriers by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That argument was discounted by FEC lawyers, who noted that Berke submitted a form showing FAA operating specifications for a company called Trident Aircraft, Inc. Berke’s response didn’t clarify the relationship between Trident and Paramount, the company listed as the recipient of the PAC’s payments, the FEC counsel’s report noted.

Leadership PACs generally face fewer spending restrictions than candidates’ primary campaign committees, though air travel rules for House candidates are supposed to apply to both types of committees.

recent report by the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, another nonprofit watchdog, documented tens of thousands of dollars of payments for luxury resorts, meals and other questionable expenses by numerous leadership PACs. The report found $82,408 in payments for private jet travel between October and December of last year, though much of it was paid for travel by senators not subject to the same air travel restrictions as House members.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com