A federal regulatory agency chastised Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last year over his intervention in a licensing dispute involving a broadcasting firm -- a company owned by a family that this year provided Ehrlich with the use of a luxury helicopter during his successful campaign for Maryland governor.
Until yesterday, Ehrlich (R) failed to report the use of the helicopter at a deeply discounted rate as an in-kind campaign contribution, a requirement under Maryland election law. He acknowledged last week that he had used the charter chopper for eight trips worth $34,300.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick yesterday characterized the omission as an oversight. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Schurick said, Ehrlich has insisted that the campaign be charged full fare for the use of the helicopter.
Schurick also said Ehrlich's decision to contact the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of the Sinclair Broadcast Group last year was in no way connected to the subsequent donation of helicopter time by one of its directors. To suggest otherwise, he said, "is ridiculous."
But one government watchdog group in Maryland criticized Ehrlich, who on the stump regularly denounced the culture of corruption at the State House.
"This just looks bad," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "It looks like he got a cut rate for a chopper in thanks for the contact with the FCC."
Ehrlich and campaign staff members borrowed the charter helicopter from Whirlwind Aviation Inc. of Frederick. Whirlwind's sole director is J. Duncan Smith of Hunt Valley, an Ehrlich supporter and the vice president and secretary of the board for Sinclair, which the Smith family controls.
Ehrlich sent an April 12, 2001, letter to Michael K. Powell, the new chairman of the FCC, on Sinclair's behalf. At the time, Ehrlich represented a Baltimore area district in Congress and sat on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, which oversees the FCC.
Several cases involving Sinclair, which owns 63 stations, were pending before the agency. The company wanted approval to purchase more than a dozen television stations across the country, from Buffalo to Oklahoma City. Civil rights groups -- including Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, were alleging that the company had violated FCC rules governing the number of stations a broadcaster can own in one market.
Jackson has tried to block other telecommunications deals, including the high-profile merger of Viacom and CBS. In that case, he argued for remedies that would benefit a black entrepreneur and longtime supporter.
Ehrlich asked for a status report in a letter written on congressional stationery, adding: "I reiterate my concern for unnecessary delays on pending applications, especially if the delay is for political, and not policy reasons."
On May 7, 2001, the assistant general counsel of the FCC's Administrative Law Division wrote back. In his letter, John J. Riffer said that Ehrlich's communication had violated the commission's ex parte rules. The rules, intended to ensure fairness, require that any written communications regarding the merits of a case be "served on all parties" to the quasi-judicial proceeding, something Ehrlich failed to do. Riffer then asked the congressman not to repeat the mistake.
Two weeks later, Ehrlich and a fellow subcommittee member, Steve Largent (R-Okla.) wrote a scathing follow-up letter to Powell, this time sending copies to other parties. The two House members disputed that previous communications discussed the merits of the Sinclair case and thus fell under the ex parte rules. They reiterated their concern that Jackson "may be the cause of the FCC's unexplainably endless delays on certain applications."
"If the FCC application process is being misused for a political, or perhaps a personal financial agenda, as alleged, we will not hesitate to call for a congressional investigation into this matter," they wrote. "Knowing that you have served as Chairman for a few short months, we would prefer to give you an opportunity to address these concerns."
Schurick said he had no knowledge of the FCC's ex parte rules and therefore could not comment.
Largent, who resigned his congressional seat to make an unsuccessful run for Oklahoma governor this year, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Schurick said Ehrlich did what any member of Congress would have done: He vigorously helped a business based in his district. "This is garden variety constituent service," Schurick said.
But an opponent in the Sinclair case called the communications highly questionable.
"It is really inappropriate in a [quasi-judicial] case . . . to impugn the motives of some of the parties and to threaten an agency into moving precipitously on a matter that could require more time," said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit organization that favors more diverse ownership of television and radio stations.
In December, the FCC ended a three-year investigation of Sinclair by agreeing with some of Jackson's allegations and fining the company $40,000. Nevertheless, it approved Sinclair's acquisitions.
In Maryland, the state Board of Elections and the state prosecutor said yesterday they will review Ehrlich's campaign finance reports to determine whether fines are warranted for the failure to account for the helicopter trips in a timely fashion.
Corporations are prohibited from donating more than $4,000 in an election cycle to any candidate. After the arrangement became public, Ehrlich's campaign asked Whirlwind to charge its normal $2,450 hourly fee, rather than the $1,000 discounted price it initially cited.
The company then made an in-kind donation of $4,000 to Ehrlich and $3,700 to the committee of his running mate, Michael S. Steele. The campaign will reimburse the company the $26,600 balance.