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Florida House leaders lived big on GOP plastic

TALLAHASSEE — For Florida House leaders, membership had its privileges: a Republican Party American Express card to charge trips on jets to Manhattan and Disney World, stays at chic hotels and meals at five-star restaurants.

Flashing the party card opened limousine doors and bought gifts at Harrod's Limited in London, Toys "R" Us and Best Buy. It provided a seemingly bottomless coffee cup at Starbucks.

In all, about $458,000 in AmEx charges like these were racked up by former House Speaker Marco Rubio, his now-indicted successor Ray Sansom, and the man set to lead the chamber in November, Dean Cannon, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald computer analysis of Republican Party of Florida charge card statements for nearly two years ending in 2009.

The part-time lawmakers paid for little of it. Republican Party donors, mostly corporate interests seeking favorable legislation from lawmakers, picked up the bulk of it.

Though some of the records have been reported, the AmEx card statements of the three party leaders viewed together offer a window into the world of public officials conducting private, partisan business.

The Republican Party has declined to release the billing statements, but the paperwork has leaked out amid criminal investigations connected to party donors and a civil lawsuit involving former party chairman Jim Greer. Gov. Charlie Crist's handpicked leader, Greer was ousted in January after leading the party to its zenith of spending.

"All the spending, all the charges and the nice hotels and dinners just don't cast the image of good fiscal management, either in Florida or in Washington," said Tom Slade, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 1993 to 1999. He said some Republicans lost their way amid all the money that flowed into the party under Greer and Sansom.

Sansom awaits criminal trial on charges that he rigged the state budget to help a friend and major party donor.

When Sansom led House campaign efforts, a young party staffer named Melanie Phister charged nearly $1.3 million in expenses — some for Sansom and his family — and in ''multiple instances," she said, her card was used without her knowledge.

"When someone gives a credit card to someone else and that someone else doesn't pay that, the temptation is overwhelming," Slade said. "After a while, it becomes an entitlement. And the 'while' is a short period of time."

Rubio charged the least of the trio, about $100,000, and paid AmEx about $16,000 in expenses he deemed personal at the time. Cannon charged the most: about $200,000, of which he identified more than $3,000 in personal expenses, reimbursing the party for some of it just weeks ago as the scandal over party finances widened.

Party business

Sansom couldn't be reached, nor did his attorney return calls about his nearly $173,000 in expenses. Sansom charged an additional $20,000 in Delta Air Lines flights on Phister's card, which also picked up $5,000 in flights for state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is slated to become House speaker in November 2012.

The current and former lawmakers won't say what every card expense was for, but they and their spokesmen maintain that the money was properly spent for political party business — raising money from major donors and holding strategy meetings to influence elections and maintain power in the Legislature.

Often, those meetings were close to home for Cannon. He charged $5,406 in 58 visits to Houston's Restaurant in Winter Park, about 2.7 miles from his home. On 18 other occasions, Cannon dropped a total of $9,220 at Ruth's Chris Steak House, 3.2 miles from his home.

"I was very careful with my use of the card and always used it in appropriate meetings with the members or staff in furtherance of party business," Cannon said. "And I'm pretty proud of the fact that we brought back basically all the Republicans (to the Legislature). I think we did a good job with it."

Within the party, the House and Senate leaders maintain separate fundraising election machines, claiming the right to spend what they raise under the slogan "We eat what we kill."

The Democrats have similar fundraising operations. But they raise far less and don't issue party charge cards. Amid all the scandals, the Republican Party has discontinued use of the cards.

Only the charge card statements of Republican House leaders have leaked out, along with about $500,000 in charges in 2009 from Greer ally and former party executive director, Delmar Johnson. Rubio's former chief of staff, Richard Corcoran, also had a card and rang up $70,000 in four months.

In addition to the cards, Rubio, Sansom and Cannon also raised and spent tens of thousands more on themselves and others through special political committees.

Cannon's biggest single charge card expense: $19,151 for Malone Aircharter, a jet service that, Cannon said, ferried him and other lawmakers to a New York fundraiser for the Florida party in December 2006. Rubio and Sansom were also at the fundraiser. All three stayed at the Bryant Park Hotel and together spent about $775.

About the time of the fundraiser, the party accepted donations of $217,000 from health interests, the real-estate industry, cable companies and telecommunications firms — whose interests became major issues in the following legislative session.

Longtime Republican fundraisers like Al Hoffman say the purpose of the fundraiser might have been legitimate, but some of the expenses were too "lavish'' and hard to justify.

'Wining and dining'

"When they do the fancy wining and dining, they do it for themselves. Same with jet charters," Hoffman said. "For those guys to charter a jet, when there's commercial air service available, is really the height of misuse."

Hoffman said lawmakers have to spend money to raise money. But, "when you see a five-star hotel or a $1,000 dinner, that's ridiculous … little piggies at the trough."

Cannon charged six dinners on his card that each exceeded $1,000. Neither Sansom nor Rubio charged meals that cost that much.

All three together rang up $72,688 in hotel charges including the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island, Watercolor Inn in Santa Rosa and Walt Disney World Caribbean Resorts. The party has annual Disney World fundraisers.

Sansom and his family also flew to London on his party card. Phister's card shows $40,000 in London expenses that helped underwrite the Sansoms' trip, which coincided with a European trade mission of the governor's.

Records for Sansom's card show he spent $11,475 at Best Buy, almost $840 at Starbucks and $9,421 on flowers. In London, he also charged $235 at Harrods and $75 at Westminster Abbey.

Rubio's charges are smaller than Sansom's, from $181 at the Natural History Museum in New York to $1,348 on flowers to $1,000 at Braman Honda to repair van damage incurred at what he said was a party function.

News of the spending has dampened the spirits of some donors, Hoffman said. Still, the party on Thursday reported a strong fundraising quarter in which it collected $7 million.

Republican fundraiser Mark Guzzetta said many of the expenses of Cannon and Rubio look reasonable. He said one of the reasons the lawmakers charged so much on their cards is that, in the bad economy, legislators are taking on more fundraising duties for the party.

"I don't go to Houston's any more. It's too expensive," he said.

But he said there are only so many pennies he can pinch: "You can't ask a guy for fifty grand and take him to Burger King."

Times/Herald staff writers John Frank, Scott Hiaasen, Lee Logan and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Florida House leaders lived big on GOP plastic 04/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 7:31pm]

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