Devin Nunes spent campaign cash on private flight. A federal agency just dropped the complaint

The Federal Election Commission has dismissed a complaint against Rep. Devin Nunes that accused him of improperly using his leadership PAC to charter a private jet.

Federal regulations bar House members from using money they raise for elections on non-commercial flights. Nunes, R-Tulare, spent $5,518 to charter a private jet in March 2018, and paid for it with money from a political fundraising committee.

Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against Nunes over that issue with the FEC last year, and Nunes’ team argued in a response filing that the jet fit the standards of a commercial flight.

In a release this week the FEC announced it had dismissed the complaint after a deadlocked vote.

The four FEC members had voted 2-2, with two commissioners appointed by Republicans voting to dismiss the case and two commissioners appointed by Democrats voting not to dismiss it. The FEC rules require four affirmative votes in order to move a case forward.

A general counsel report on the case classified it as “low priority,” and listed amount, complexity and impact as reasons they may have graded the potential violation that way.

Dismissing it is not a statement by the FEC that Nunes did not commit a crime, according to Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a watchdog organization.

But it’s a blow to attempts to rein in the use of leadership PACs, which watchdog groups say have run amok with expenditures that campaigns pretend are related to fundraising.

Decisions like this convey to candidates that the FEC will not police the use of leadership PAC money for personal expenses, said Meredith McGehee, executive director of nonpartisan watchdog group Issue One.

“(Former President Barack) Obama put too little capital into fixing the FEC, and (President Donald) Trump has put in even less,” McGehee said. “On his ‘drain the swamp’ policy, he has been AWOL.”

Leadership PACs are a separate campaign account that politicians create to donate more money to other candidates for office. In a report last year, Issue One and another nonpartisan watchdog, Campaign Legal Center, argued that some members of Congress use leadership PACs as slush funds.

Nunes, for example, used thousands of dollars to buy Celtics tickets, winery tours and Las Vegas meals and hotels, according to FEC records. All were listed as fundraising expenses, which is a legal use of leadership PACs. The Campaign Legal Center seized on his charter flights for its complaint to the FEC.

“When and if there’s a larger amount spent on this kind of travel, the FEC might not punt on it,” Ryan said. He added, however, that deadlocked decisions at the FEC have become common, as the two Republican appointees tend to favor non-enforcement on potential campaign finance violations.

But Ryan and McGehee said they still worry House members will be emboldened to ignore bans on non-commercial air travel. The FEC should release a statement on why they ruled the way they did in a couple weeks, Ryan added, and he’s hoping clarity provided there will discourage further improper spending.

“Politicians have a sixth sense for where these gaps lie, and I would put Nunes in that category,” McGehee said. “That is the ‘crime’ of the FEC, they’re allowing the politicians to go to the lowest common denominator.”

Nunes’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.