When private planes and political campaigns come together in a story, it’s usually about the unseemly sight of a politician flying private. But in the case of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), the story is far less about a first-class flying experience—Kelly is a former astronaut who pilots a small rented plane on short hops to events around the state—and more about the plane itself.
The plane in question is a Lancair Columbia 400, a single-engine Cessna that seats four, including the pilot. But this particular plane is registered to a Tucson-based doctor: Sheldon Gingerich. And Dr. Gingerich appears to be a troubled character; he is currently under federal indictment for 31 counts of violating the Controlled Substances Act and last month settled an alleged bribery lawsuit with the state of Arizona involving apparent kickbacks from a notorious opioid manufacturer.
The doctor appears to have no direct ties to Kelly, whose campaign rents the plane through a third-party company that essentially operates as a middleman.
But it turns out the leasing company also has a noteworthy backstory: It has held Pentagon contracts as recently as last year, and is actively making the case for more federal defense work. This could conflict with the freshman senator’s role on the Armed Services Committee.
The Kelly campaign’s financial reports show travel expenses in April and June totaling $17,190, paid to Tucson-based Newton Consulting & Engineering Inc. The company’s owner, Bob Newton—a service-disabled veteran and former fighter pilot—confirmed in a phone conversation this week that he rented the plane to Kelly.
A Kelly spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Gingerich has no relationship with the campaign or Kelly, that the campaign pays market rates, and that its relationship with NCE was limited to aircraft rentals.
“This is a ridiculous political smear,” the spokesperson said. “Senator Kelly flies planes rented from a Service Disabled Veteran Owned small business to travel all across the state and hear from Arizonans because it makes him a better Senator.”
“The company rents numerous planes and selects the planes for Senator Kelly to fly based on his needs and their availability,” the spokesperson added, and claimed the plane’s owner did not get paid when the campaign rented his plane.
The spokesperson did not say whether the campaign would discontinue renting the plane.
Flight records also show a Lancair LC41-550FG registered to Gingerich made multiple flights that coincide with Kelly’s travel this spring. On April 2, both Kelly and the plane made trips to Sierra Vista, where Kelly toured a mobile rural health clinic on that day. Three days later, when Kelly traveled to Yuma to meet with U.S. Border Patrol officials, Gingerich’s plane made a round trip between Tucson and Yuma.
On July 13, Kelly tweeted that one of his favorite parts of the job was “flying to meet with constituents in every corner of our state. Last week, that meant flying myself to Kingman, AZ and back.” The post was accompanied by video of a plane resembling Gingerich’s Lancair, which four days earlier had made a Tucson-Kingman round trip, flight records show.
Gingerich has recently been targeted by both federal and Arizona state law enforcement for allegedly prescribing drugs to people who didn’t need them.
The federal indictment, filed last November in the U.S. District Court for Arizona, details 31 counts of unlawful distributions of controlled substances, including alleged sham prescriptions for oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. The case is ongoing and Gingerich hasn’t entered a plea.
Gingerich has already agreed to pay the state of Arizona more than $50,000 and forfeit another $80,000 to settle the bribery allegations. The state had accused the doctor of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in sham speaker fees from Insys—the makers of Subsys, an under-the-tongue opioid prescription spray containing fentanyl. Gingerich denied the allegations in his settlement filing.
Gingerich did not respond to a request for comment.
A photo of the aircraft was recently removed from the business’s website, a move Newton said was related to Gingerich’s decision to sell the plane sometime last month. (NCE provides flight and safety training as part of its business operations.) The change in ownership has not yet appeared in Federal Aviation Administration registration records. And Newton, who knows Gingerich, would not disclose the new owner. Newton said he believed the paperwork was still being processed.
According to federal records, NCE has received about $780,000 in taxpayer dollars for its contract work with the Air Force since 2012. In 2019, the company landed a $500,000 contract for a fleet modernization study, which was later partially extended into 2020.
Newton said that while the aircraft will still be available for rent under its new owner, they “don’t expect Kelly to use it.”
The NCE website repeatedly markets the company’s work with the Pentagon. It’s a small business, and says its acquisition efforts focus primarily on technology transfer and research. A version of the site archived in October 2020 lists a number of federal clients, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Naval Air Systems Command, the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force. The archived site also claims to have established business relationships with large and small defense contractors, which Newton confirmed.
The current version of the website also promotes NCE’s experience in defense acquisition and contract administration. Its mission statement is “to provide and sustain quality services on time at or under budget for the Military, Government, and industry organizations.” The company says it is striving to become “the services sector company of choice providing quality service to our Military Forces, other Government agencies, and industry customers and to our employees,” according to its vision statement.
As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Kelly would have direct influence over those missions, though neither the campaign payments, nor NCE’s interests before the Armed Services Committee—past or pending—are illegal.
Newton also told The Daily Beast that the campaign rented the plane at market rates and said he had not discussed Kelly’s official purview with the senator.
“We haven’t had any interface with his office on that. It’s pretty much a pure civil agreement and we’re happy to support,” he said.
Newton added that he also knows Kelly’s predecessor, former Air Force pilot and Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who also sat on the Armed Services Committee, and “would have been happy to fly her, too.”
—Updated at 12:10 pm, 9/12/2021 with additional comment from a Kelly spokesperson