Politics & Government

Donations to Nunes improperly used to charter a private jet, says complaint to FEC

Devin Nunes listens to testimony before the House Permanent Select Commitee on Intelligence related to the Russian cyber attack and investigations into wiretapping, on Capitol Hill on March 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Devin Nunes listens to testimony before the House Permanent Select Commitee on Intelligence related to the Russian cyber attack and investigations into wiretapping, on Capitol Hill on March 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C. TNS

Political donations to Rep. Devin Nunes were improperly used to fund $5,518 in private jet travel, says a complaint filed by a nonpartisan watchdog group with the Federal Election Commission on Monday.

Nunes, R-Calif., is the sponsor of New PAC, a leadership political action committee which paid $11,036 to Paramount Business Jets on March 7, according to public filings. The PAC was refunded $5,518 May 18, citing overpayment.

Paramount Business Jets, based in Virginia, offers “private jet flights to and from any major city in the world, in any size aircraft with as little as 4 hours of notice,” according to the company’s website.

It’s illegal for such leadership PAC money, which members of Congress use for donating money to other political candidates and committees, to be used for non-commercial air travel. Exceptions described in federal law are government-owned planes or planes already owned or leased by the congressman or candidate.

When asked to comment on the complaint, Anthony Ratekin, Nunes’ chief of staff, said McClatchy and the local paper in Nunes’ district “should apologize to the congressman and stop embarrassing themselves.”

“McClatchy and the Fresno Bee are reliably printing multiple unsubstantiated hit pieces against Rep. Nunes every week based on false information put out by left-wing interest groups, and this will undoubtedly continue through the election,” Ratekin said.

Myles Martin, an FEC spokesman, said candidates can use leadership PAC money for chartering private jets in certain cases. It has to be chartered through a company set up for that specific purpose, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and and candidates have to pay the market rate. In those cases, chartering a private jet can fall under commercial air travel according to the FEC’s interpretation, Martin said.

Paramount Business Jets is not on the list of air carriers approved by the FAA.

“The law concerning this was mainly set up to prevent candidates from using a corporation’s private jet, or that of a wealthy donor,” Martin said, adding leadership PAC complaints are uncommon because candidates get a “wide discretion” in their use.

But Dan Weiner, senior counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center and a former senior counsel to an FEC commissioner, said any chartering of private flights by a leadership PAC is a “clear illegal use” under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act passed in 2007.

“There are relatively few areas of campaign finance law that is a bright line, but in the case of private jets it is a clear violation,” Weiner said.

A charter specialist with Paramount Business Jets who declined to be identified said there are short flights, two hours or less, that could cost about $5,000. A flight from Washington, D.C. to California would cost $36,000 “on the low end,” he said.

Campaign Legal Center, which filed the complaint, published a report along with Issue One last week that called on the FEC to more stringently police leadership PAC use for personal uses disguised as fundraising.

Brendan Fischer, who co-wrote the report for Campaign Legal Center, said it filed the complaint because of what it saw as the clear nature of the violation. He went through campaign finance reports of the leadership PACs of hundreds of members of Congress, and said Nunes was the only House member who had a PAC that used funds for private air travel.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, also used leadership PAC funds for private air travel, but under the law only House members are prohibited from doing so, Fischer said.

Nunes’ fame has grown enormously due to his position as House Intelligence Committee chairman, his friendly relationship with President Donald Trump and his controversial views about Department of Justice investigations.

Many Democrats and some Republicans see his efforts as attempts to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.

As he became better known, Nunes’ fundraising ability has grown.

Nunes has raised more than $7 million for his own 2018 re-election, compared to past cycles when he typically collected between $1 million and $2.5 million. New PAC has also seen its fundraising climb year after year, and is currently on track to raise and spend more money over the 2017-18 cycle than it did in years past.

The Campaign Legal Center and Issue One report also highlighted New PAC purchasing $15,000 worth of Boston Celtics tickets this election cycle and more than $40,000 in expenses at high-end restaurants and hotels in Las Vegas since 2010. Nunes’ PAC also spent about $15,000 in a single day of winery tours in California, including a limousine and a beachfront hotel, in June.

Ratekin did not respond to McClatchy requests for comment over those expenditures, but told the Boston Globe that the McClatchy report “insinuated wrongdoing” when Nunes had done nothing illegal. He would not confirm or deny if Nunes attended the games to the Globe.

Martin said there has to be at least four votes to proceed by the FEC Committee for the complaint to continue in the process, which requires a reason to believe there could have been wrongdoing. From there, the process takes months to conclude, but if the charges are found to be credible the penalty is typically fines.

If the FEC finds that the violation was willful, the case is passed to the Department of Justice to assess possible criminal charges.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby