When Sharron Angle hitched a ride on a supporter's plane to rally Tea Party troops at the "Showdown in Searchlight" in Harry Reid's hometown, the rising Republican candidate hoping to replace the U.S. senator might have violated campaign finance rules.
Angle paid $67.54 to reimburse the owner and pilot for fuel and parking for several legs of the trip that she and a couple shared on the six-seat, single-engine Cherokee Piper on March 27 and 28, according to records her campaign released to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Passengers picking up equal shares of the transport tab is in line with Federal Aviation Administration rules.
But after questions were raised about whether Angle as a candidate should have paid a charter rate estimated at $7,000 or more, her campaign said Friday it sought a legal opinion and decided to pay a higher charter plane fare to ensure full compliance with the Federal Election Commission.
The campaign declined to release the amount of the payment.
"Sharron pays for her own trips and so there was no free ride," said Jerry Stacy, spokesman for Angle's campaign. "And this is not a corporate jet. This is a private plane being flown by a private person. We thought we were doing the right thing and following all the rules."
Confusion and mishandling of campaign finance has tripped up several candidates, especially Angle and Sue Lowden, now running neck and neck for the GOP nomination in the June 8 primary. Danny Tarkanian also is a top GOP contender to face the Democratic incumbent Reid in November.
Lowden has her bus problem with the Democratic Party filing a complaint with the FEC, accusing her of accepting an illegal donation of a luxury RV that sports her photo and acts as a campaign billboard as she travels the state. Lowden says the bus is leased and in compliance with the law.
Now Angle has her plane problem, which the Lowden campaign seized on as the hotly contested GOP primary plays out its last days heading into the June 8 final vote.
"You can't portray yourself as a candidate in a pickup truck when you're taking private planes across the state," Lowden campaign manager Robert Uithoven said, referring to Angle driving herself around to events in her own pickup, which is featured on her campaign website.
Uithoven said the private plane travel is the latest example of Angle's campaign not properly disclosing contributions, payments and debts -- problems the Angle campaign has attributed to computer software glitches and other accounting errors in its reports dating back to late 2009.
"Sharron Angle was over a year late in filing a legally required financial disclosure form, and she still hasn't accounted for the nearly $100,000 of missing debt from previous FEC filings," Uithoven said. "It's hard to read her record when she tries to keep it closed."
Stacy dismissed the criticism, saying Angle opponents are playing a "gotcha game."
"This should be about how to defeat Harry Reid, and it kind of sickens me that people are trying to bring down this campaign," Stacy said after battling a series of national stories trying to link Angle to Scientology and other controversial ideas to make the conservative appear unelectable.
In Angle's case, the flights came during a busy time for the former Reno assemblywoman, whose campaign was heating up as she wooed the Tea Party movement for support, including at the anti-Reid gathering in Searchlight attended by 8,000 to 10,000 people.
Ed Rathje, a Reno supporter and private pilot, offered to fly Angle to Searchlight and several events before and after the gathering, which came two weeks before she won the Tea Party Express endorsement. His plane is registered under DLR Ventures LLC, a limited liability corporation he owns.
An Incline Village couple, Steve and Denise Ause, jumped on board, too, after meeting Rathje through GOP contacts the day before the Searchlight event. They, too, paid their share, $224.58 for the whole trip, according to records released by the Angle campaign.
The Piper left the Reno-Stead Airport on March 26 with the Ause couple and another man on board. They met Angle in Henderson that evening as she did a radio interview with Roger Hedgecock.
On March 27, Angle, a campaign worker and the couple flew together from Henderson to Bullhead City, Ariz., then to Searchlight for the main event, then returned to Henderson. Angle's campaign worker chipped in $20.40 to cover his share of that leg of the trip, the records show.
On March 28, Angle and the Ause couple flew home, from Henderson to Reno-Stead.
"We had a wonderful time, and Ed kept a whole log and kept track of what everybody owed," Denise Ause said in an interview. "He was keeping everything right down to the penny."
Steve Ause said the couple, who are active in Republican politics, were early backers of Lowden because they saw her as the best GOP bet to beat Reid in the fall. But once they got to know Angle, mostly through the Searchlight trip, they switched allegiance to the Tea Party favorite.
"For a while we were going with Sue because she was the front-runner and it was just all about how do we get rid of Harry Reid," Steve Ause said. "But when we got to know Sharron and her campaign took off, we felt she was really the better candidate, and we think she can win."
The Auses also are supporting Gov. Jim Gibbons for re-election, although the Republican has had a series of personal problems, including a divorce, that have made it unlikely he will win the primary.
Stacy said Angle had complied with FAA rules that allow only pro-rated reimbursement of plane operating costs for private pilots when they carry passengers. But another lawyer who deals in FEC regulations advised the Angle campaign that federal finance rules supersede the FAA in this case, allowing the private pilot to accept charter fees without risking the loss of his license.
"So the bottom line is this: The campaign prefers to take the safe-than-sorry route, and the treasurer has been instructed to make an additional immediate payment to the pilot that reflects the going rates for chartered flights and file an updated report with the FEC," Stacy said.
The Angle campaign also plans to seek an advisory opinion from the FEC to clarify any potential conflicts between the FEC and FAA rules about private flights, Stacy said.
"The plane is a 44-year-old, single-engine Cherokee Piper, and the chartered rates versus pro-rata rates are not expected to show much of a noticeable difference concerning disbursements paid out for the usage of a plane this old," said Stacy, who would not give an exact reimbursement figure.
In 2007, the law was changed to prevent federal candidates from accepting free rides on corporate jets, said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert with Public Citizen, a watchdog group. Candidates must fly commercial or must charter planes at the market rate, he said.
"They have to pay their pro-rated share of the charter flight," Holman said. "The whole spirit of the law is to get candidates off corporate jets. We're just starting to see violations beginning to happen."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.