Politicos may have broken election law with plane ride

FRESNO — Two valley Republican congressional candidates likely violated federal election law when they traveled in late March on a corporate aircraft owned by a prominent West Side farming company.

State Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater, who is seeking the Republican nomination in the 19th Congressional District, and Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak, who is seeking the GOP's nod in the neighboring 20th District, traveled on a plane owned by Harris Farms.

Also on the plane was political guru Karl Rove — the longtime confidant of former President George W. Bush — who visited Fresno and Modesto in late March to tout his new book and stump for Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian and Assemblyman Tom Berryhill of Oakdale.

Vidak said he was on the flight along with Harris Farms Chief Executive Officer John Harris, Denham, Rove and two Rove aides. The flight went from Fresno to the East Bay, where Rove and his two aides disembarked, and then to Harris Ranch near Coalinga.

When briefed on the details of the flight, two federal election law experts said Denham and Vidak apparently violated the law. It has been on the books since September 2007, when President George W. Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Among other things, the act made it illegal for House candidates to fly on corporate jets.

Wednesday, Vidak acknowledged that he broke the law. He said he has informed the Federal Election Commission about the situation.

'Just along for the ride'

Carlos Rodriguez, a spokesman for Denham, said the campaign is unsure of whether Denham broke federal law by taking the flight — but if he did, it would be corrected.

"If there was anything done that was wrong, it was clearly done unintentionally," Rodriguez said. "And if there is anything that can be done to rectify it, we will do it."

Harris said in an e-mail that Denham and Vidak "were just along for the ride." He also wrote that the "flight was paid for by others. I don't think any of us were aware of that (federal) rule." It's not clear who Harris was referring to.

It is also unclear how often such laws are broken and whether Vidak or Denham will face punishment.

Paul Ryan, an election finance law expert at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan organization, said House negotiators insisted on the corporate jet ban when the final version of the bill was negotiated.

The bill was passed after the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose actions sparked wider ethical reforms. Abramoff is serving a prison sentence for his role in a corruption scandal.

The FEC doesn't comment on specific cases. Vidak said he was told by an FEC official that he would have to pay more money — "up to (the cost of) a commercial flight." Campaign finance reports for Denham and Vidak show $150 owed to Harris Farms for "travel."

Denham spokesman Rodriguez had said earlier that $150 is the cost of a charter flight from Fresno to Coalinga — which was Denham's destination. He said Denham didn't have to pay for the leg of the flight to the East Bay.

But local charter operators said the cost of a charter from Fresno to Coalinga likely would be at least $750 for a small airplane, and possibly more, depending on the type of aircraft.