The Federal Election Commission ruled yesterday that Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.) can use campaign contributions to pay legal fees incurred during a recent House ethics panel inquiry into his acceptance of free airplane flights from a defense contractor and government reimbursements for car trips he did not make.

In a controversial decision, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said in February that Daniel broke ethics rules in connection with the flights and car payments, but recommended no disciplinary action against him.

A spokeswoman for Daniel, who is seeking his 10th term, said the representative was not available for comment and said she did not know the extent of the legal fees he has paid or that remain outstanding.

Daniel would be required to report any reimbursements of more than $200 from his campaign committee on his next finance disclosure report, according to the FEC.

The FEC, in a 4-to-2 vote, said the Federal Election Campaign Act allows Daniel, as a member of Congress, to "defray any ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with his or her duties as a holder of federal office . . . . "

The commission said it "expresses no opinion on the application of House rules or tax ramifications regarding this transaction . . . . "

The controversy arose last fall amid the disclosure that Daniel had accepted 23 flights from Beech Aircraft Corp. from 1983 to 1985. Daniel later acknowledged he was wrong and paid Beech $1,127 -- or about $49 each -- for the flights to his southern Virginia district.

In February, the House ethics committee said there was no evidence that Daniel was influenced improperly by the free flights from Beech Aircraft and accepted Daniel's explanation that he misunderstood rules about auto reimbursements.