When Baltimore's Democratic mayoral nominee Catherine E. Pugh visited Las Vegas last weekend, she didn't fly Southwest. She hopped a ride there and back on the private jet of a Maryland businessman and campaign donor.
Pugh said she asked Walter A. Tilley Jr., chief executive of Home Paramount Pest Control, for a ride to and from an international shopping center convention attended by many government officials.
The state senator said Thursday she was there to observe and do a little shopping but had to be back in Baltimore by Tuesday. She decided to ask Tilley for a ride after she heard he was making the trip.
Pugh said she paid $650 for the trip on Tilley's private jet, similar to the cost of a commercial round-trip flight on Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at BWI Marshall Airport. She said she will list the trip on her next ethics disclosure form.
"I paid for my flight," Pugh said. "I had to be in and out by a certain time."
She said she checked the state's ethics rules before taking the flight and determined that there was no conflict.
Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, commended Pugh for paying for the trip. But the organization's executive director said she was concerned about a businessman having such unfettered access to a public official. Tilley's company has done business with the state and won a share of a $240,000 contract with the city this month, online records show.
"Where's the opportunity for citizens to have that same access?" Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said.
Tilley could not be reached for comment. Tilley and his wife Nancy each contributed $6,000 to Pugh's mayoral campaign — the most allowed by law. Home Paramount Pest Control gave $5,500 to her campaign as well.
The annual RECon convention, staged by the International Council of Shopping Centers, draws tens of thousands of people to Las Vegas each year for a showcase of retail outlets. It is a magnet for elected officials, many of whom say they attend to attract businesses to their home states and cities.
Among those attending this year's RECon was Gov. Larry Hogan. Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the governor, said Hogan attended "to meet and speak with industry leaders from around the country about doing business in Maryland."
Mayer said Hogan took a commercial flight on Southwest at state expense.
Other elected officials who attended include Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Carl Stokes.
Records show the city paid $567 each for Rawlings-Blake and her deputy to take a commercial flight to Nevada. The city paid $456 each for Young and Stokes to fly. Spokesmen confirmed Thursday that that is how those officials traveled to Las Vegas.
Besides Tilley, Pugh's fellow passengers aboard the Sunday flight from Martin State Airport to Las Vegas and the Tuesday return trip included lobbyist John A. Pica Jr., who represented Baltimore in the General Assembly during the 1980s and 1990s, and Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County, a former state Senate Finance Committee chairman who served a seven-year prison term on federal corruption charges.
Pugh said she did not know who, besides Tilley, would be on the flight before she boarded.
"It was a personal trip," said Pugh, adding that she did not discuss city or state business with fellow passengers. "I sat in the front by myself. I'm reading a book about Theodore Roosevelt."
Pica, Home Paramount's lobbyist, said there was no lobbying of Pugh. Pica contributed $500 to Pugh's campaign.
"We didn't discuss any business with Senator Pugh," he said. "In fact, she sat in a separate part of the plane and wasn't part of those discussions."
Bevan-Dangel called the Las Vegas event "nothing but a boondoggle for unfettered access to public officials."
"This shopping center event has been nothing but an ethics nightmare for years," she said. "The reason to go seems to be the parties and the schmoozing."
She noted the 2013 convention, when Rawlings-Blake officiated at the wedding of two prominent Annapolis lobbyists with many elected officials in attendance.
Pugh's opponents in the November general election criticized her decision to take the trip.
Republican nominee Alan Walden called Pugh's decision "at least unwise."
"If it gives the appearance of being improper, it should be avoided," he said.
Joshua Harris, the Green Party candidate, said he would leave it up to voters to decide whether the flight was proper.
"I don't think many private citizens are taking private [jet trips] from wealthy businessmen," he said.
Home Paramount is a large pest exterminator based in Forest Hill, with branches throughout the Mid-Atlantic and in Florida. It is a registered vendor with the state of Maryland and has won several contracts in recent years, including one for pest control at BWI.
The company won a contract this month to provide pest-control services to various city-owned properties, online records show. The company bid $135,000 for the work and was awarded a share of a $240,000 contract that will be divided among three companies. A breakdown on services to be provided by each was not immediately available.
Hogan named Tilley to the Maryland Port Commission last year. The former Marine previously owned York Printing and York Distributors.
State records show Pica has earned $36,000 as Home Paramount's lobbyist since May 2015, representing the company on such matters as pest-control legislation and state contracts.
Pica served one term in the House of Delegates and moved to the state Senate in 1983. Until this year, he held the distinction of being the only person to defeat Martin O'Malley in an election — a 1990 squeaker that Pica barely won. In a surprise move, he left the Senate midterm in 1996.
Bromwell was chairman of the Finance Committee from 1995 to 2002, when he resigned to head the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund.
In 2007, he pleaded guilty to racketeering and fraud after a federal investigation into his dealings with a contractor that stretched back to his time in the Senate. He was released in 2013.
Bromwell did not respond to a telephone call seeking comment.
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Yvonne Wenger and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.