Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been given extensive use of a luxury executive helicopter provided at an apparent discount by a company with ties to two Maryland television stations.
Most recently, Ehrlich and his family used the $2,500-an-hour aircraft eight days after the election to travel between Washington and Ocean City, where he was vacationing.
Campaign aides acknowledged yesterday that no payments have been made for the chartered helicopter services, provided by Whirlwind Aviation Inc. of Frederick, though the flights date to April.
According to state records, Whirlwind was incorporated in 1995 with J. Duncan Smith listed as the sole director. Smith is also the vice president of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which owns 62 television stations, including WBFF Fox 45.
Only after an inquiry by The Sun did the campaign say it received an undated series of invoices from Whirlwind. Those documents show the Ehrlich campaign being billed at the hourly rate of $1,000 for the use of the Dauphin Eurocopter, aides say, with Whirlwind providing more than half the total $13,750 cost as an "in-kind" campaign donation.
In published statements and in a phone call yesterday, Whirlwind officials quoted the rental rate for the helicopter as $2,500 an hour.
Smith declined to comment yesterday on any arrangements he had with Ehrlich or the ownership of Whirlwind. He referred all questions to Ehrlich's campaign committee.
The donation appears to violate campaign finance laws because it was not reported in a timely fashion, and raises an ethical issue for the station.
"If you're an entity that owns a news outlet that is supposed to provide fair and balanced coverage of the campaign, and yet at the same time are providing aid to one of the candidates in the campaign, that puts them in a severe position of conflict," said Christopher Hanson, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "I don't see any way around that."
Ehrlich campaign spokesman Paul E. Schurick said Smith and his family are longtime Ehrlich supporters who felt that the flight services would be a more valued asset than a cash donation.
"If we felt that we could benefit from it, we'd call and see if it was available," Schurick said of the flights. "Often times, it was not available."
Ehrlich could not be reached for comment last night.
Schurick said the aircraft was used at least six times during and after the campaign, for trips to Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. The earliest trip was to Garrett County in late April. "It's worth every penny," he said. "It's a very nice helicopter."
But months after the trips began, none has been accounted for in campaign finance documents filed by Ehrlich's committee, an apparent violation of state law requiring donations to be listed during the reporting period in which they are received.
"It would frustrate the intent of the law to hold things back until after the election," said Ross Goldstein, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections. "The purpose is to put both the public and your opponent on notice about what money you've received, and what you've spent."
Sinclair Broadcast Group is controlled by the Smith family, with four brothers - David, Frederick, Duncan and Robert - sitting on the company's corporate board. All but Robert are also senior officials.
While the family shies from the spotlight, its political leanings are not hidden. The Smiths are known to be wary of government regulation, particularly of the broadcasting industry, and antagonistic to gun control.
Democrats have accused Fox 45 of showing bias during its news programs against Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
"Their newscasts were devoted to promoting Bob and attacking Glendening-Townsend without any stab at fairness," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF and a sister station, WNUV, denied the charge, saying coverage was evenhanded and thorough.
"Usually, it was the same questions being asked to both candidates on the same topics," Fanshawe said. "One of the things we pride ourselves on is being fair and balanced."
The station's editorials, however, had a sharp edge.
On several occasions during the final month of the campaign, Sinclair vice president for public affairs Mark Hyman criticized Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich's Democratic opponent. On Oct. 25, he said it was a "scandal" that a state agency she oversaw had failed to track certain gun purchases. Hyman finished the editorial this way: "Here's a news bulletin for you, ma'am. If you're in charge, you're to blame! Period! Case closed! End of discussion!"
Fox 45 was the only media outlet to report three weeks before the Nov. 5 election that two top Townsend aides were the subject of a federal investigation into the allocation of anti-crime grants, a claim that has yet to be confirmed.
Pleased with coverage
Ehrlich spoke often during the campaign about his pleasure with the "free media" he received through consistent news coverage by television stations and newspapers.
"I have no complaints about any of the coverage this campaign received," Schurick said, adding that Fox 45 reporters did not favor Ehrlich.
"It is ludicrous to suggest a connection between Fox 45 news coverage and the support from one of the owners of the corporation that owns Fox 45," he said. "There's just no connection there."
Ehrlich campaign officials provided different answers during the past several days about how the flights would be paid for.
After a Sun inquiry last week, the campaign said all flights would be in-kind donations provided by various members of the Smith family.
Yesterday, Schurick gave a different account: He said Whirlwind would make a $4,000 in-kind donation to Ehrlich's campaign committee, and a $3,700 in-kind donation to a committee for Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele.
The balance, $6,050, has "been invoiced to the campaigns," he said.
State election law limits contributors to donations of $4,000 per candidate and $10,000 to all campaigns during a four-year election cycle.
Campaign finance records show that Duncan Smith gave at least $2,000 to Ehrlich's state committee since 2000, and other family members gave at least $4,000 more.
Since 1997, Sinclair executives or board members and their family members have contributed more than $200,000 to Republican candidates and causes on the Maryland and federal levels.
During Ehrlich's 1996 campaign for Congress, Smith family members donated more than $9,000 to the candidate.