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Davis Flies Friendly Skies on Private Jets

Travel: He regularly uses flights provided by firms and unions at reduced or no cost. Critics see a conflict of interest.

September 04, 2002|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he campaigns for reelection, Gov. Gray Davis regularly flies on private jets provided by corporations and labor unions that do business with the state and have a major interest in what happens in Sacramento.

Their willingness to give Davis access to their planes--donations worth thousands of dollars, for which the Davis campaign either pays nothing or a nominal air fare--has allowed the governor to cover more ground and to avoid security delays that have become commonplace at airports during the last year.

A review of the governor's campaign finance reports by The Times for the last year and a half found that Davis flew on private planes provided by 18 companies, unions or individuals. The reports show that between Jan. 1, 2001, and June 30, 2002, the governor traveled on planes provided by organized labor, water development firm Cadiz Inc., construction contractor Tutor-Saliba Corp., drug maker Eli Lilly & Co. and troubled telecommunications firm Global Crossing Ltd., among others.

"It's hard to get around the state [on commercial airlines] if you're doing a multi-city trip and not lose a lot of time at airports," said Davis campaign spokesman Roger Salazar.

Paying Coach Fares

The governor's campaign committee paid only a fraction of the cost for that travel--usually no more than the price of a commercial coach airline ticket between the cities involved.

For private plane flights between many points in California, the amount paid by the Davis campaign was often equal to the price of a ticket on Southwest Airlines.

The campaign reports include only the nominal payment by the Davis campaign to a corporation or union. The reports do not indicate the date of travel or the route taken, and the campaign did not provide that information despite requests from The Times.

Davis campaign strategist Garry South said the state Fair Political Practices Commission does not require candidates to disclose the full value of flights on board private planes. Indeed, a 25-year-old opinion by the state's political watchdog agency says candidates who use corporate airplanes need only report the cost of a commercial airline ticket between the cities involved.

South said donors often provide the planes in response to a request from the campaign.

The low-cost private air transportation represents just one way that well-heeled interests are helping Davis--and, to a much lesser degree, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr.--in the race for governor of California. Such in-kind contributions come in many forms, from Learjets to lavish receptions, vintage wines to candlelight dinners. They can be as innocuous as buckets of paint or as important as paying the salary of a top campaign strategist. South's $15,000-a-month salary, for instance, is paid by the state Democratic Party, relieving the Davis campaign of that expense.

Although both candidates make use of in-kind contributions, Davis has relied more heavily on cheap private flights, leading to criticism from the Simon campaign.

"Unfortunately, the average citizen can't afford a flight on an Air Davis plane," said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Simon. Miner accused Davis of giving special treatment to the companies and organizations that give him free or cheap transportation.

Salazar, however, denied that Davis gave anything in return for those flights. Just because those companies or others have an interest in state government does not mean that they expect special treatment, he said. Anyone would be "hard-pressed to find any company or entity that doesn't have business or interests in something to do with the state of California," Salazar said.

Like cash contributions in the race for the state's highest office, there is no limit to how much can be given in so-called nonmonetary contributions.

And candidates sometimes manipulate the reported value of such gifts, either to minimize the appearance of influence by a donor or to intimidate rivals by making the campaign appear flush.

In 1998, when Davis was struggling against two well-financed rivals in the Democratic primary, the then-lieutenant governor paid nothing for most of his flights on private jets and instead reported their full value as in-kind contributions from the donors who let him use their planes. He continued that practice throughout the general election campaign against Republican Dan Lungren.

Davis reported the donations that way, South says now, because it highlighted the fact that the campaign was receiving substantial contributions at a time when Davis' ability to compete against better-funded rivals was in question.

But in the current campaign, Davis and his aides have taken the opposite tack: Having raised more than $50 million since he was elected governor, Davis now usually pays his own way on the flights, but at rates far cheaper than the actual cost of those flights.

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