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Legislators Still Getting Plenty of Free Gifts

Just in case you really thought the gift ban that applies to the Florida Legislature was really working, please note that our elected legislators merely use a different path to get themselves plenty of freebies.

Freebies are still flowing freely
By GARY FINEOUT
H-T Capital Bureau Correspondent

Smarting from scandals linking lobbyists and state legislators, the Florida Legislature tried to crack down three years ago on legislators accepting meals, gifts and other freebies from lobbyists.

But despite that ban, state lawmakers are still wining and dining for free or getting free tickets and hotel rooms at places like Universal Studios in Orlando.

It’s all legal.

They form political organizations that can accept contributions from lobbyists and use the proceeds for meals and travel. They can eat free or accept free tickets to Disney World, for example, but the meal and trip are considered a donation to the Republican Party of Florida or the Florida Democratic Party.

Some legislators also are members of caucus groups that take donations from lobbyists and use the money for meals and other expenses.

“There is some hypocrisy that the gift ban seems to ban the small stuff but not the big stuff,” conceded Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, who represents a part of Charlotte County.

But Senate Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, says the changes have worked.

“There is a bright-line distinction and I think it sends the right message,” said Hasner.

Yet consider this:

Records turned in over the last two years by the Florida Democratic Party show that high-powered lobbyists and special interest groups bought Democratic lawmakers meals and reported the expenses as party donations.

The expenses are legal if they provide a “direct benefit” to the party, which includes fundraising or “furthering the objectives” of the party.

For example, a Tallahassee law firm that represents dozens of clients, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Walt Disney World and the state’s restaurant association, paid for a $5,200 reception and dinner at a Boca Raton steakhouse last August.

Stephen Metz, an attorney with Metz Husband & Daughton, called last year’s dinner a routine annual event where his firm — and its clients — meet with legislators and discuss raising money for the political party.

“Everybody does that,” said Metz.

The Florida Justice Association, the organization that represents the state’s trial attorneys, spent $2,000 on a dinner last November that brought together newly elected Democrats and Democratic Party officials with association members. It was described as a “get acquainted” session by one of the organizers.

Both political parties have accepted free rooms and tickets to major theme parks for events that included lawmakers. Universal Orlando donated more than $118,000 worth of rooms, tickets and meals for a Republican Party of Florida event held the weekend before this year’s session started.

Top lawmakers have established political organizations known as committees of continuous existence, or CCEs, that can accept unlimited donations from lobbyists or corporations. The legislators can use the money on anything from donating to the campaigns of other lawmakers to picking up their own expenses.

State Sen. Michael Bennett’s CCE, Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth, reimbursed nearly $25,000 for his travel expenses over the last 21/2 years. His CCE has raised more than $1 million over six years from dozens of special interest groups, including phone companies, home builders, unions and hospital chains.

Bennett, R-Bradenton, defended the reimbursements, saying he was helping other legislators campaign to win their support in his bid to become Senate president in 2010.

“I’ve been traveling all over the state trying to recruit votes, trying to help members,” Bennett said. “It’s all part of the leadership races.”

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, had his Innovate Florida CCE reimburse more than $6,100 last year for meals and travel.

Aronberg’s hotel rooms, taxi rides, and airplane tickets have been paid for by the Citizens for Political Accountability CCE that took donations from the pari-mutuel industry, phone companies and hospitals.

“It’s crazy,” said Ken Plante, a former state legislator and long-time Tallahassee lobbyist. “I can’t give them a stick of gum, but if I wanted to, I could give their committee a billion dollars.”

Galvano said that his reimbursed travel expenses were for travel to talk to people about giving money to his CCE. Innovate Florida’s goals, according to its Web site, is to “support and advance the principles of better government.”

“It’s mainly, or all of it, is in furtherance of what the CCE does,” Galvano said of his travel expenses.

The Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus, with more than a dozen legislators from both parties, has paid for meals when lawmakers have met to play dominoes or celebrated the session’s end.

Records show the caucus spent nearly $1,900 at three Tallahassee restaurants that serve Cuban, Mexican and Cajun food on the last day of the 2008 session.

Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami and chairman of the Hispanic caucus, defended the expenses, including those for last year’s ‘Sine Die party.’ He said that those expenses are just part of the group’s spending. He said the group awards college scholarships to minority students and provided lunch for a migrant worker group that came to Tallahassee this year.

“Those activities are related to promoting what we are doing,” said Zapata.

State lawmakers passed the lobbyist gift ban in 2005, after a series of scandals, including the revelation that a state senator sought to get lobbyists to pay for a trip to Africa.

The ban prohibits state lawmakers, the governor and other state officials from accepting anything of value from a lobbyist. The change replaced an earlier law allowing lawmakers to accept gifts up to $100.

The Leon County grand jury that indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom earlier this month called on legislators to clamp down on the ability of individuals and corporations to donate large sums of money to political parties or committees.

The jury stated that the “present system has the potential to breed corruption and create an unfair advantage for those who have money to leverage influence on the Legislature.”

But lawmakers are not planning major changes.

Hasner contends that lawmakers are not skirting the gift ban or relying on donations through political parties. He said as long as lawmakers help with the party or the political organization there’s nothing wrong with a lobbyist paying the tab.

Plus, Hasner says Florida forces lawmakers to reveal the sources of money and how it is spent.

“It’s totally transparent and it’s on the Web and it’s there for anybody to see,” Hasner said.

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Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , , ,

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