San Diego's Group W Transportation is a private air carrier so small that until recently its entire fleet consisted of a one-16th ownership stake in a Lear jet.
Yet Group W, owned by Poway defense contractor Brent Wilkes, has provided personal air transportation for some high-profile passengers – including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who has flown on the jet to such locations as Idaho for a hunting trip and Hawaii for a golf tournament.
Although the flights may be legal, critics say they serve as prime examples of how federal contractors and lobbyists use travel and other perks to make friends on Capitol Hill.
"Making a corporate jet available for key members of Congress to use for their personal and business travel is a nice way to curry favor with people who can help get earmarked appropriations included in massive spending bills, not to mention the chance to put your lobbyist on a five-hour flight in the next seat," said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat best known for crafting campaign finance laws with Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain.
Congressional travel expenses have been in the spotlight since February, when it was reported that DeLay had accepted free trips from lobbyists. In the past five months, more than 200 members of Congress, including DeLay's Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have revised their travel reports to reflect trips that were paid for by special interests.
Although members of Congress are permitted to take all-expense-paid travel related to their legislative work, they are required to disclose the trips within 30 days.
Members of Congress cannot take free trips for campaign activities. Campaign laws require candidates to pay the equivalent of first-class commercial air fare when flying aboard corporate jets. However, since private jet travel is far more expensive than commercial air fare, politicians who comply with the law are getting an expensive gift from the company that owns the jet.
Feingold introduced a bill in the Senate last month that would require lawmakers to pay charter fares for such flights, rather than first-class fares.
"It's time to end the charade that says that the fair market value of a flight on a Lear jet is the same as the cost of a first-class plane ticket," Feingold said. "If that fiction is eliminated, the use of corporate jets as a lobbying tool will be history."
Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe, defends his trips, saying they were related to political fundraising activities and were paid for by his campaign.
"Everything we've done that way has been paid for and is legitimate," he told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "When you go to a campaign fundraiser, it doesn't just involve raising funds. There can be other things involved, such as hunting or golfing."
Federal Election Commission records show that Cunningham has paid for nine flights aboard Group W's jet since 2001, at a total cost of $15,674. But the FEC records – which only show the dates and amounts of the checks, not the dates or destinations of the flights – do not completely match up with Cunningham's trips. Additionally, there is no record that Cunningham paid for his own food or lodging on the trips.
"Duke believes that all of his congressional and campaign travel has been properly reported," said his attorney, K. Lee Blalack. But he added that Cunningham is checking his campaign filings "and will amend those filings if any travel expenses were inadvertently omitted."
At the time Cunningham was taking the trips, Wilkes' company, ADCS Inc., was winning multimillion-dollar contracts on projects approved by the House defense appropriations subcommittee, on which Cunningham sits.
ADCS, a private company in Poway that specializes in converting paper records into computer records, has received tens of millions of dollars in military contracts since 1996.
Over the past eight years, the defense appropriations subcommittee has repeatedly added funding for ADCS-related projects to the Defense Department budget, even criticizing the Pentagon for not requesting the money itself.
Wilkes, who also runs Group W Advisors, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, declined to answer phone calls and e-mails seeking comment on the issue.
Cunningham's ties to another defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, founder of MZM Inc., are currently the subject of investigations by a federal grand jury in San Diego, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington. Wade also has ties to ADCS, listing himself as recently as 2000 as an ADCS employee on political donations, according to FEC records.
The investigations were launched after articles in the Union-Tribune raised questions about Cunningham's sale of his Del Mar-area home to Wade, who later sold it for a $700,000 loss.
Cunningham also lived aboard Wade's yacht, called the Duke-Stir, while in Washington.
MZM has received $163 million in federal contracts since 2002. Cunningham has said that as a member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, he supported funding requests benefiting MZM.
Since launching ADCS in the late 1990s, Wilkes has built relationships with key legislators on Capitol Hill. He and his close family members and business associates have donated more than $600,000 to congressional campaigns, mostly targeted at members of the Senate and House appropriations and armed services committees, which oversee the Pentagon budget.
In addition, Wilkes has spent $440,000 on lobbying activities, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors government ethics issues. He also has repeatedly provided the use of his corporate jet to Cunningham and DeLay.
Technically, Wilkes does not own the jet. Instead, he has a fractional ownership from Bombardier Flexjet, which sells time-share ownership of jets.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that until March, Wilkes was one of 16 co-owners of a Lear 31A jet, whose registered owner was Jon Fossel, former chairman and chief executive of Oppenheimer Funds. Wilkes has since dropped his ownership in that jet and become one of eight co-owners of a different jet.
Fossel says he never met the co-owners of the jet, never heard of Group W and was surprised to learn that the jet had been used for congressional flights.
"The way these things work is that you're all grouped together by Flexjet," he said. "Even though you officially own a specific plane, you don't necessarily travel on the plane you own. You call up Flexjet and tell them you need a charter, and they will send you whatever plane is closest to your location."
Fossel said each owner of the plane was entitled to 50 hours per year of flight time, although Group W upgraded its ownership this spring to one-eighth of a jet, guaranteeing 100 hours per year. Filings with the FEC show that in 2001 and 2003, Group W used much of its flight time to transport politicians.
During one weekend campaign swing in July 2003, DeLay used at least a quarter of Group W's 50-hour annual allotment on the jet.
DeLay flew the Group W jet from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., to John Wayne Airport in Orange County to appear at a campaign dinner for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach.
When the dinner was over, DeLay flew from Orange County to Seattle, where he appeared at a campaign event for then-Rep. Jennifer Dunn. Once that event ended, DeLay used the Group W jet to fly back to Washington, D.C.
The DeLay, Rohrabacher and Dunn campaigns, which jointly funded the trip, paid Group W a total of $3,057 – about what DeLay would have paid for a single hour on the jet, if he were paying for it on his own.
DeLay's spokeswoman, Shannon Flaherty, declined to answer questions regarding the Group W flight. "He has a lot of other things on his mind these days," she said.
Bill Allison, managing editor at the Center for Public Integrity, said that any money that companies such as Group W lose when subsidizing campaign travel pales in comparison to the benefits they might receive by solidifying relationships with legislators.
"The company is donating something of value to a politician – a cheap flight on a charter jet – and it's getting something with potentially even greater value in return: face time with somebody who handles the purse strings of federal budget," he said. "In the end, the money that the company spends on the jet flights is a fraction of the benefits that can come out of it."
FEC records show that DeLay took his first Group W flight in June 2003 on a trip with Cunningham. The two legislators paid a combined total of $3,765 for the trip. DeLay also used the Lear jet to fly to a campaign event for Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, in July 2004 at a cost of $2,350. The political action committee of Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, also paid $1,590 for tickets on the plane.
However, Cunningham spent the most time of any legislator on Group W's jet.
In August 2003, Cunningham used Group W to fly to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig was holding a golf tournament and fundraising dinner.
Besides Craig's fundraising events, Cunningham's visit to Idaho included a hunting trip that he described as a fundraiser for his own campaign.
According to Cunningham, the hunting trip almost cost him his life.
He and the other hunters used four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles to maneuver through the thick forests of the Rockies. But it was Cunningham's first time on a four-wheeler, and he was not adept at steering. On a tight curve, he lost control. The four-wheeler ran downhill through the underbrush and the left side of Cunningham's chest slammed into a tree.
"I almost got killed on that thing," he said. "I was lucky to walk away."
He ended up missing the golf tournament as he recuperated from his injuries, although he joined Craig for dinner at the country club afterward.
Cunningham's record of campaign expenses – which generally are so meticulous that they include his dues and single dinners at the tony Capitol Hill Club – do not reflect any campaign-related expenses for food or lodging in Idaho. And there is no FEC record of Cunningham paying for a flight to Idaho in the summer of 2003.
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