TALLAHASSEE — When Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp isn't flying on a state plane between the state capital and his home base in Fort Myers, he uses a more down-to-earth way to shuttle between the two cities.
He rides in a state car with a state trooper as his driver, adding more than $60,000 to the $400,000 Kottkamp has charged taxpayers for air travel in the past two years.
The trooper assigned as Kottkamp's round-the-clock escort is a Florida Highway Patrol captain who was paid $62,000 in travel expenses in the past two years in addition to his base pay of $73,954.
The numbers could increase significantly this year following the media exposure of Kottkamp frequently flying to and from his home in Fort Myers, including trips with his wife and son. Kottkamp has repaid the state $6,600 for their travel.
"We're trying to be good stewards of the people's money and where we can, drive and try to save as much of the people's money as we can," Kottkamp said. In an e-mail to supporters, he said that since last July, "we have driven all over this state, rather than use airplanes, in an effort to save the taxpayers money."
Records show the trooper owns a home in Fort Myers, where he claims the homestead exemption as his primary residence, according to Lee County's property appraiser. But the trooper's permanent assignment or duty station is Tallahassee, so he can legally claim $80 a day in expenses, or per diem, when he's in Fort Myers protecting Kottkamp.
He does not claim per diem while in Tallahassee, the FHP said.
That money, along with occasional payments for meals and other expenses, added up to more than $28,000 in 2007 and $36,000 in 2008, which the FHP said is allowed by law.
"It is clear that his duty station is Tallahassee," said Col. Ernesto Duarte of the Highway Patrol. "State law allows any employee to request the subsidy anytime they are away from their duty station." Duarte said the trooper, 38, never sought payment for hotel expenses either in Fort Myers or Tallahassee.
The name of Kottkamp's trooper escort appears on air travel manifests released by the state agency that manages the airplanes, and the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau asked the FHP for travel vouchers for the trooper who accompanies Kottkamp. The bureau agreed to withhold the trooper's name at the request of the highway safety agency, which said releasing it "could be used to harm not only the lieutenant governor, but the captain and/or his family, as well."
The number of times the trooper drove Kottkamp to his home in Fort Myers could not be determined because state officials blacked out travel dates and destinations on expense reports, citing a law that exempts surveillance techniques, procedures and personnel from disclosure. The agency said a "valid security purpose" exists to apply the exemption broadly, meaning that details of trips were kept confidential.
"Even isolated bits of information, which may seem innocuous, could be used to harm or kill the lieutenant governor," wrote Robin Lotane, general counsel of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, who plays a leading role in managing the budget crisis, has questioned the need for Kottkamp to have a round-the-clock security escort, and other Republican legislators have criticized Kottkamp's liberal use of air travel during a recession. There has been talk among senators of grounding the state's two remaining planes and forcing Gov. Charlie Crist and Kottkamp to take commercial flights or drive.
"Every single expense needs to be justified," said Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach Gardens.
Duarte said the trooper is required to be at Kottkamp's beck and call 24-7. "This is a one-man operation," he said, "and he's not going to allow anything to happen to the lieutenant governor under his watch."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.