Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.), the nine-term dean of Virginia's delegation in the House, had been thinking about retiring from Congress, but an aide said yesterday that disclosures that he accepted free airplane rides from a defense contractor "will only likely make him more likely to run again."
"Anybody who knows me knows I'm not going to give my vote for an airplane ride somewhere," the 71-year-old Daniel said after The Washington Post reported that he had taken rides from Washington to his Southside district from Beech Aircraft Corp.
William Rutherford, Beech's vice president for governmental relations, said in an interview that the free flights provided by his company to Daniel and others are an "absolutely essential part of our business."
Rutherford said Daniel, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, has flown 10 or 12 times this year on trips to and from his district on aircraft owned by Page Avjet Inc., Beech's Washington distributor.
"In our business," Rutherford said, "very much like any other, you have a product where the technology is changing quickly and exposure [to potential customers] is tremendously important."
The Post reported Monday that Daniel successfully pushed for $56.9 million in Pentagon funding this summer to buy 24 Beech executive turbojets that the Pentagon didn't want. After Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House-Senate conference on the defense authorization bill, refused to add money for the planes, language was added that requires competitive bidding, but officials in the Pentagon said only Beech can meet the requirements.
Daniel said he pushed for funds for the C12s so that commanders of National Guard and Reserve units could observe what was happening in the field. Goldwater said the planes were used to go hunting and fishing.
Reports of the flights attracted much attention in the state's press, but have created barely a stir in Daniel's district, which sprawls across the south central Virginia south of Richmond.
R.H. Patrick of Moenta, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party, said, "It's hard to believe that Dan Daniel would let something like a little airplane ride influence his decisions . . . . If there are other facts that have not been presented, we'd have to look at it again. But politics is not always important; a man stands on his own history."
Max Gruber, a University of Richmond dean who plans to seek the Republican nomination to Congress in the district next year, said he heard "some discussion of it" at the opening of a campaign headquarters for GOP gubernatorial nominee Wyatt B. Durrette in Halifax County yesterday. "But I don't know enough about it to comment," Gruber said, adding that "I don't think he [Daniel] will be our opponent."
H. Victor Millner Jr., the GOP chairman of Pittsylvania County, said "the practice should not go on for him or anybody else, but I don't attribute any malice or impropriety or vote peddling by Dan as a result of that."
Rutherford said he believed one of Daniel's trips, on June 3 to South Boston, Va., was billed to Daniel's campaign committee, but other trips by Daniel, as well as by other legislators, were provided free.
"Normally, [Daniel] calls us to see if we or one of our distributors has a flight planned that coincides with his travel needs," Rutherford said. "We try to accommodate him on that basis," but, he added, "I wouldn't tell you we always handle it that way."
Asked whether Daniel was provided air transportation on demand, Rutherford said: "That would not be inaccurate."
Rutherford said the normal charter rate for a Page Avjet aircraft is about $475 per flight hour.
Members of Congress are required to report the sources and descriptions of gifts of transportation, lodging, food or entertainment totaling more than $200 in a year. John F. Davison, counsel to the House ethics committee, said that amount drops to $100 when the donor is anyone with an interest in legislation before Congress.
The Associated Press reported that Daniel's financial disclosure forms for the last three years have no entries under the gift category.
"If I've overstepped it the gift limit , then I'll make restitution," Daniel said. "I am not going to be in the business of making laws and then breaking them."