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McCain frequently used wife’s jet for little cost

Over a seven-month period, Sen. John  McCain’s cash-short campaign gave itself an advantage by using a corporate jet owned by a company headed by his wife, public records show.
Image: John McCain, Cindy McCain
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and his wife, Cindy McCain, wave to supporters in Prescott, Ariz., earlier in April.Ross D. Franklin / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

Given Senator ’s signature stance on campaign finance reform, it was not surprising that he backed legislation last year requiring presidential candidates to pay the actual cost of flying on corporate jets. The law, which requires campaigns to pay charter rates when using such jets rather than cheaper first-class fares, was intended to reduce the influence of lobbyists and create a level financial playing field.

But over a seven-month period beginning last summer, Mr. McCain’s cash-short campaign gave itself an advantage by using a corporate jet owned by a company headed by his wife, , according to public records. For five of those months, the plane was used almost exclusively for campaign-related purposes, those records show.

Mr. McCain’s campaign paid a total of $241,149 for the use of that plane from last August through February, records show. That amount is approximately the cost of chartering a similar jet for a month or two, according to industry estimates.

The senator was able to fly so inexpensively because the law specifically exempts aircraft owned by a candidate or his family or by a privately held company they control. The adopted rules in December to close the loophole — rules that would have required substantial payments by candidates using family-owned planes — but the agency soon lost the requisite number of commissioners needed to complete the rule making.

Because that exemption remains, Mr. McCain’s campaign was able to use his wife’s corporate plane like a charter jet while paying first-class rates, several campaign finance experts said. Several of those experts, however, added that his campaign’s actions, while keeping with the letter of law, did not reflect its spirit.

"This amounts to a subsidy for his campaign, which is notable given how badly they were struggling last year," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that collects and analyzes campaign data.

Legal and ethical, campaign says
Mr. McCain was not available to be interviewed, a campaign spokeswoman said. In response to written questions, the spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, said his campaign had acted legally and ethically in paying first-class airfares for Mrs. McCain’s corporate aircraft.

"The campaign carefully followed all the relevant laws and F.E.C. regulations on air travel at all times, and paid for travel exactly as required by those rules," Ms. Hazelbaker said.

Last summer, just before starting to use his wife’s plane, Mr. McCain was quoted in a newspaper report as saying that he did not plan to tap her substantial wealth to keep his bid for the Republican presidential nomination going.

"I have never thought about it," Mr. McCain was quoted by The Arizona Republic as saying at a July appearance. "I would never do such a thing, so I wouldn’t know what the legalities are."

Facing mounting debts at the time
The McCain campaign turned to using the jet last August, a time when it faced mounting debts and the possibility of financial collapse. It stopped doing so in March, those records indicate.

During the first half of 2007, a time when Mr. McCain’s campaign did not use his wife’s jet, it paid out over $1.04 million for travel on noncommercial planes, F.E.C. records indicate. Over the second half of the year, when that jet was used almost constantly for campaign-related purposes, his campaign’s total spending for noncommercial flying was about one-half that much, or $542,160, those records suggest.

To determine how often the use of the jet was campaign-related, The New York Times reviewed commercially available flight records for the plane and compared them with campaign appearances made by Mr. McCain, his wife and others on his behalf.

The plane is a Cessna Citation Excel, a midsize corporate jet that typically seats eight and can fly four hours at a time. It is owned by Hensley & Company, through a holding company, King Aviation. Mrs. McCain is the chairwoman of Hensley, which is one of the country’s biggest distributors of Anheuser-Busch products. Hensley was founded by Mrs. McCain’s father, James Hensley, and her uncle.

It was her late father’s fortune, which also includes real estate, that helped start Mr. McCain’s political career. King Aviation is listed on Mr. McCain’s Senate disclosure forms as one of his wife’s assets.

The F.E.C. rules that were never finalized would have required candidates using family-owned planes to pay the aircraft’s operational costs. A Citation Excel costs about $2,000 per flight hour to operate, taking into account expenses for fuel, its crew, maintenance and other costs, according to industry experts.

For the same plane, a commercial charter company would charge about $3,000 per flight hour with a two-hour daily minimum.

The McCain campaign declined to release a detailed accounting of which trips had been made on the plane, the identities of the campaign officials who took those flights and how much the campaign had paid for each one. But it is unlikely that the campaign reimbursed King Aviation for the plane’s operating costs.

Over the seven-month period, the King Aviation jet took more than 100 flights to places on days when campaign rallies, fund-raisers or involving Mr. McCain occurred in or near those locations, that analysis found.

That tally included repeated flights during critical primary months to states including Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. On some days, the plane made three or four campaign-related flights, the records indicate.

Separately, the plane took an additional 20 flights back and forth from Phoenix to points along the campaign trail, the analysis indicates. Based on the plane’s $2,000 hourly operating cost, the estimated cost of just those 20 flights, which took over 70 flight hours, exceeded $140,000.

The McCain campaign, however, did not pay Mrs. McCain’s company anything for those flights on which Mr. McCain or other campaign travelers were not aboard the plane, such as any empty flights to or from Phoenix.

Use of aircraft defended
Ms. Hazelbaker, the campaign spokeswoman, said that F.E.C. rules did not require campaigns to pay for so-called deadhead flights and that the campaign did not make such payments to King Aviation.

She said Mr. McCain’s use of his wife’s plane did not represent a shift in his position on campaign finance-related issues.

"Senator McCain’s paid use of Mrs. McCain’s family plane is explicitly permitted under the new law and does not represent any change of position on corporate jets and lobbyists," she said.

Jan Baran, a Republican lawyer in Washington who specializes in election law, said Mrs. McCain or her company would be likely to face substantial tax consequences for the plane’s campaign-related use because such campaign-related business costs were not tax deductible.

Ms. Hazelbaker referred all questions about Mrs. McCain to officials of Hensley, who did not return repeated calls.

Earlier statement touted compliance
Last summer, Ms. Hazelbaker said that Mr. McCain appeared to be the only Republican candidate who was complying with the intent of the new admonitions against discounted rates for flights on corporate planes.

To perform its analysis, The Times obtained Federal Aviation Administration flight data for the King Aviation plane through a commercial vendor and then matched up its flights during the five months of its most intensive use with reports of campaign appearances of Mr. McCain or others on his behalf.

Ms. Hazelbaker turned down repeated requests to meet with a Times reporter to discuss the newspaper’s analysis and declined to release a detailed accounting of how much the McCain campaign paid for its use of the corporate jet.

In September, for example, the Times analysis indicated that Mr. McCain’s campaign used the King Aviation plane on at least 15 days to travel to campaign-related locations.

Over the last three months of 2007, the plane was used on at least 39 days to fly to locations throughout the country when such events were taking place. In January, the plane was flown on 17 days for such purposes.

The Times analysis may be inexact for a variety of reasons. For one, flight records do not show how many, if any, campaign travelers were aboard a plane on a given flight. Also, the companies that collect flight information may not capture all flights.

This article, McCain Frequently Used Wife's Jet for Little Cost, originally appeared in The New York Times.