Last updated: August 20. 2014 3:29PM - 395 Views
By Adam Beam Associated Press

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FRANKFORT (AP) — The candidates in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race are answering questions together for the first time amid a squabble over a bus rental.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is accusing Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes of accepting potentially illegal campaign gifts from her father’s bus company.

The Grimes campaign says it sampled rates from four companies before deciding how much to pay to rent an 11-year-old luxury bus from Jerry Lundergan’s company. The campaign calls McConnell’s criticism a “hit job.”

Grimes and McConnell were scheduled to appear together Wednesday in Louisville as part of a forum sponsored by the Kentucky Farm Bureau. The event is supposed to focus on agricultural and rural issues, with the candidates getting three minutes each to answer questions from the Farm Bureau’s board of directors.

Other issues could be discussed, Farm Bureau spokesman Dan Smaldone said.

“That’s up to the candidates, really,” Smaldone said.

Politico reported Tuesday that a company owned by Lundergan purchased a bus and leased it back to his daughter’s campaign. The campaign has paid Lundergan’s company just under $11,000 to use the bus for 24 days, from October to June, at a cost of $456 a day. The Grimes campaign says the rental rate includes the bus and the driver but not the fuel.

Candidates for federal office may accept gifts, or “in-kind contributions,” of up to $2,600 per person. But the candidates may not accept gifts from corporations. The difference between a gift and a purchase is whether the campaign paid the fair market value, said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.

In a statement, the McConnell campaign called the rate “shocking” and said the fair market value for a 6-year-old bus it rented last week was between $2,000 and $2,200 a day.

“Alison has a lot of tough questions to answer about how her family, and their corporate interests, have improperly subsidized her political operation,” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said.

But the Grimes campaign said it relied on rates from four bus companies to determine how much to pay for the bus. Marc Elias, a lawyer for the campaign, said the campaign followed the law.

“The people of the Commonwealth are tired of Mitch McConnell’s decades of deception and dirty campaign tricks. Our campaign will not be bullied by McConnell and his allies,” Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said.

One company, Star Coach in Atlanta, said the $456-a-day rate was legitimate. But Dan Neuen, the company’s vice president of operations, said he would have charged the campaign every day regardless of whether they used the bus.

“If they’re paying 11 grand to have that bus wrapped for 266 days and use it however many days they want to use it? That’s a sweetheart deal,” Neuen said.

Staley Coach & Sales in Tennessee, which sells but doesn’t rent buses, told the campaign an accurate rate would be between $150 a day and $175 a day for an 11-year old bus, adding that only charging for when the bus was in use could be negotiated.

“You’ve got a bus that is 10 years old, it’s almost worthless to entertainer lease companies,” co-owner Libby Staley said. “You have to compare apples to apples.”

No one has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. The FEC dealt with a similar case in 2010 involving Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sue Lowden. The commission dismissed that case.

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