Campaign offers new details on helicopter

Aides to Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his campaign used a deeply discounted helicopter service more often than initially disclosed, and provided other details that raised more legal questions about the trips.

Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said the campaign used the luxury executive helicopter eight times between April and November, including a trip to New York related to Ehrlich's congressional duties. Initially, the campaign said it made six trips.

Much of the helicopter use was donated by Whirlwind Aviation Inc., a company with close ties to Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., owners of WBFF Fox 45. Schurick could provide dates and locations for only six of the eight trips; the campaign has received post-dated bills for all of them.

The campaign has acknowledged it has not paid for any portion of the cost of the trips and that it erred in not reporting the flights promptly on election reports. Some critics have also raised ethical questions about a media outlet providing services to a candidate it was covering.

Additionally, state officials said yesterday that the hefty discount of the flights must be treated as a campaign donation under state law, creating a possible violation for Whirlwind.

The aviation company would exceed the limit on campaign donations if the discount was properly accounted for, state law indicates.

Whirlwind donated a significant portion of the cost of the flights, and billed Ehrlich at $1,000 an hour for the remainder, according to documents produced only after inquiries by The Sun.

But the company typically charges customers $2,500 an hour. Independent aviation records show the high-end Eurocopter Dauphin aircraft -- the same model used by Ehrlich -- costs $2,563 an hour just to operate.

If the $1,500-an-hour discount is not available to the general public, it should be considered a donation, said Ross Goldstein, director of candidacy and campaign finance with the Maryland board of elections.

"If I give a specific candidate a discount, and am not otherwise offering that discount to somebody else, that is an in-kind contribution," Goldstein said, speaking generally about state law.

The discount appears to be worth $20,625. Whirlwind has donated a total of $7,700 to two campaign accounts for the helicopter use, one for Ehrlich and another for his running mate, Michael S. Steele. An additional donation would put them over the limit of $4,000 for each account.

Ehrlich declined to comment yesterday for the second consecutive day about the flights.

Schurick insisted the donations and the relationship between Ehrlich and Whirlwind Aviation Director J. Duncan Smith, a vice president of Sinclair, were legal.

Smith has refused to comment on the ownership of Whirlwind, but the connection between the aircraft charter company and Sinclair is indicated in reports filed by the media firm with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In a report filed last year, under the heading "Related Party Transactions," Sinclair reported that it had leased aircraft from a company owned by "certain Class B stockholders."

The same report states that members of the Smith family, including Duncan Smith, own the majority of the Class B stock and they also hold a controlling interest in the media firm.

'Not trying to hide it'

According to the reports, the payments by Sinclair to the aircraft leasing company totaled $2.2 million from 1996 through 2000.

Schurick said there would be "hundreds of in-kind contributions from companies" listed in Ehrlich's coming campaign finance reports. "This is as routine as routine can be. We're not trying to hide it," he said.

Early this week, the Ehrlich campaign provided conflicting accounts of how the flights would be paid for, first saying they were entirely donated by several members of the Smith family, who control Sinclair. Later, aides said that the aviation company would donate a portion of the flights, while the rest would be paid for from Ehrlich's campaign funds.

Ehrlich aides said yesterday that the payments have not yet been made, even though the flights occurred as early as April 26, when Ehrlich flew to Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County for a Republican Party dinner.

Other flights include an Aug. 21 trip to Southern Maryland; an Aug. 30 campaign visit to the Eastern Shore; a Sept. 16 trip to Cumberland; and a Nov. 13 family vacation to Ocean City.

On Sept. 6, he traveled to New York for a joint session of Congress memorializing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Technically it was [congressional business], but we accounted for it as part of the campaign operation," Schurick said.

Schurick could not provide dates and locations for the final two trips. But he said lawyers for the campaign determined the $1,000 cost was "fair market value."

But data provided by Conklin & de Decker Associates, a Massachusetts-based aviation consulting company, show that the Dauphin costs $2,563 an hour to operate. "That's your maintenance, your fuel, the pilot cost, the insurance rate," said Brandon Battles, Conklin & de Decker vice president.

Schurick acknowledged that the invoices did not include charges for the pilots' waiting time, which typically costs $150 an hour.

'Benefit of the doubt'

Democrats expressed yesterday little appetite for seeking punishment for the apparent campaign finance violations.

"People should have known better in his campaign, but I think at this early stage of his gubernatorial career, he should be entitled to the benefit of the doubt," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Hopefully, they can disclose, he can learn, and we can move on."

Miller said the helicopter trips were less disturbing than reports that Ehrlich campaign workers promised $125 to Prince George's County college and high school students to work Election Day handing out "Democrats for Ehrlich" literature, but were never paid. State law prohibits payments for such activities.

"It's the kind of thing the campaign can do a little math for, write a few checks and walk away scot-free," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.