DeSantis super PAC shares cost for private air travel in unusual deal

An independent group funding much of Ron DeSantis’s presidential effort has become a joint investor with his campaign in a private transportation management company that provides lower-cost airplane leases for the Florida governor, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The unusual agreement — which allows both the DeSantis campaign and the Never Back Down super PAC to lease planes in a larger volume at lower market rates — is yet another way that DeSantis and his allies have found to use unlimited donations to help cover the cost of activities historically borne directly by official campaigns.

Under the arrangement, both entities bought partial ownership of an airplane lease or leases, according to the people familiar with the deal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a nonpublic contract. The agreement required each group to pay the costs of operations, including crew, fuel and airport fees when they use the planes.

“We will continue to follow the law as we maximize our resources to bring Ron DeSantis’s message to reverse the decline of this country and lead our Great American Comeback to as many voters as possible,” Andrew Romeo, the communications director for the DeSantis campaign, said in a statement. A spokesperson for Never Back Down declined to comment.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has flown using the joint leases, according to the people familiar with the plans. Never Back Down has not yet taken advantage of the arrangement. The people declined to discuss the specific terms of the agreement or the amount of money saved by leasing together.

DeSantis’s movements over at least 15 days this summer corresponded with the movements of a Gulfstream IV jet that seats up to 19 people owned by a Houston company called Empyreal Jet. The campaign reported paying $100,000 through the end of June to Empyreal in its federal filings.

In July, however, DeSantis left the Gulfstream IV in the midst of a trip to Iowa, according to flight-tracking data. DeSantis continued on his trip with other aircraft, while the Gulfstream returned to its base in Houston and has not been used again by the campaign.

A third person familiar with the arrangement said the plane repeatedly experienced minor problems. Empyreal declined to comment.

A budget crunch led the DeSantis campaign to lay off roughly a third of its staff last month as officials acknowledged they needed to rein in spending. The campaign has not specified whether the candidate will change his travel habits to fly commercial, as some lower-polling rivals do.

Federal law restricts the DeSantis campaign to individual contributions of no more than $3,300 per election. Never Back Down, by contrast, is allowed to accept donations of any value from corporations, nonprofits or individuals, including one contribution this year from a Nevada hotel magnate in excess of $20 million.

While other candidates have benefited in more limited ways from affiliated super PACs, Never Back Down has aggressively moved to absorb costs that normally would be borne by the campaign: building a delegate operation, an extensive field campaign and even an effort to recruit endorsements for the governor. Never Back Down regularly plans and pays for fundraisers, voter events and bus tours with DeSantis, who is allowed to attend as a “special guest,” but is not allowed to direct the technically independent outside group’s spending decisions or directly raise money.

“The issue with all of these creative workarounds is they continually push the campaign and the super PAC closer together,” said Saurav Ghosh, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, an advocate for stronger enforcement of campaign finance rules. “And the law says they need to be kept independent.”

Evidence of the plane-sharing arrangement appears on recent federal disclosures for both the campaign and the super PAC in payments to N2024D LLC, a Florida company created on May 22 that appears to take its name from an airplane tail number celebrating the DeSantis campaign. The campaign paid $483,471 to the company in June, while Never Back Down reported paying $343,757, according to federal filings.

The Federal Election Commission has previously determined that joint ownership of a plane can be allowed between a candidate and an outside entity under certain conditions. In a 2014 opinion, the six-member commission — which is always evenly split between Republicans and Democrats — found that the jointly-owned plane by then-Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) was not an improper donation to the campaign from the plane’s other owners when used by the campaign.

“When a candidate travels on an aircraft that is owned or leased by that candidate under a shared ownership or other timeshare arrangement, and the travel does not exceed the candidate’s proportional share of the ownership interest in the aircraft, the candidate’s authorized committee pays the hourly, mileage, or other applicable rate charged the candidate … for the costs of travel,” the FEC’s ruling reads, explaining its interpretation of the law.

Berg, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2012, was represented in that case by attorneys Charles R. Spies, who now works for the DeSantis campaign, and James E. Tyrrell III, who now works for Never Back Down. Both Spies and Tyrrell practice at the firm Dickinson Wright.

Nick Copely, a senior analyst for the private aviation website, said the volume discounts achieved from fractional ownership of a so-called “dry lease,” which does not include the cost of crew, fuel or travel, varies considerably across the industry.

“Each deal is unique,” he said. “It depends what size plane someone wants and the period they want it for.”

The name of N2024D refers to an apparently unused tail number that was registered in March of 2022 with the FAA by a longtime DeSantis friend, Scott Wagner, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Wagner and DeSantis both graduated from Yale University in 2001 with a B.A. in history. Wagner’s Florida law office website boasts of “specialized expertise” in aviation disputes.

Wagner is the also the registered agent for a social welfare nonprofit group, Faithful and Strong Policies Inc., which gave $5.5 million to Never Back Down this year. Such nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their donors, are regularly used by wealthy donors who want to give to political operations but do not want to be identified by name in federal filings. Florida records show that Wagner created Faithful and Strong Policies in 2022, 12 days before he registered the tail number.

N2024D is registered to employees of Professional Data Services, a company in Athens, Ga., that handles paperwork of other political efforts. Neither those employees nor Wagner responded to requests for comment.

“It’s for a future possible tail number on an aircraft,” he said in July, when asked why he had registered the N2024D tail number. “I don’t have any information that it’s going to be a campaign plane.”

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