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WASHINGTON - A Utah supporter of Mitt Romney's White House bid chartered a jet to fly 150 people to a Boston campaign fundraiser - a possible illegal campaign contribution, experts say.
Kem Gardner, a close friend of Romney, told The Salt Lake Tribune this week that he personally paid $150,000 to charter a Jet Blue plane to fly the Utahns to Boston for Romney's second national call day - an event where volunteers worked the phones, called friends, family and business associates to build up donations for Romney's presidential bid.
Asked whether the passengers reimbursed him, Gardner replied no, "I just paid for it."
Federal Election Commission rules allow a donor to travel to a fundraiser at his or her own cost, but since the people in this case were actually flying to an event and then volunteering to raise money for a campaign, a payment of their travel by a private person may violate the election rules, experts say.
"It would certainly seem the cost of the flight would constitute an in-kind contribution," says Paul Ryan, the FEC program director and associate legal counsel at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in Washington.
Romney campaign aides vigorously dispute that any campaign laws were violated, arguing that the nature of the Boston event allowed them to fly supporters to the east coast.
Campaign finance authorities say that federal law limits the amount a person can contribute to a presidential campaign to $2,300 and Gardner has already contributed that amount to Romney's campaign. While the volunteers could have paid their own way to get to Boston or the campaign could have footed the bill, they say Gardner cannot simply pay the tab to shuttle volunteers across the country to a campaign event.
"It's hard to see how it would not be an illegal contribution," says Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine who specializes in campaign finances.
Gardner, however, says he doesn't believe there is a problem with him paying for the flight. "They don't care how you get there," he said this week.
Benjamin Ginsberg, counsel to Romney's campaign, says there are two "very important and crucial distinctions" in this case. The law is clear that there are differences between a political event and a fundraising event and the travel arrangements and expenses of participants, he said.
"Federal election law permits donors and supporters to pay for their own transportation and lodging costs when attending out-of-town federal candidate fundraising events," Ginsberg said. "Most importantly, this travel was arranged between individuals acting on their own."
Ginsberg adds that the FEC doesn't include people traveling to campaign fundraising events as part of any in-kind contribution rules. "Federal law requires a federal campaign to pay for travel costs only if an individual is a campaign traveler who is traveling on behalf of a candidate or political committee," he said.
An e-mail obtained by The Tribune laid out the plan for the chartered flight and asked each passenger to front $200 to "hold" a seat. It was unclear whether that money was returned, but Gardner said he paid for the flight.
Romney's campaign said other campaigns should be asked whether they believe the cost of travel for a donor to go to a fundraiser is an in-kind contribution.
A lawyer for a Republican competitor responded that, "As a standard procedure the cost of donors attending fundraising dinners, is not an in-kind contribution. However, the campaign must pay for or account for travel by persons working on behalf of the campaign."
"The 'however' argument absolutely proves my point," countered Kevin Madden, spokesman for Romney's campaign. "These contributors were attending a finance event that was clearly and explicitly a fundraising event. The law is clear and its application to this fundraising event is exact."
Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center says the campaign has a way out of the situation, by paying Gardner back for the cost of the jet charter.
The Campaign Legal Center is headed by Trevor Potter, the legal counsel for Romney's 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But Potter is not participating in any presidential race activity or issue, according to the center.