TAMPA — City Council member Mary Mulhern used about $1,300 in taxpayer money to help pay for a trip to Cuba.
Mulhern returned to Tampa on Wednesday after a five-day jaunt with a group that included Carl Lindell, a member of the Tampa Port Authority board.
Lindell, a developer, paid for the $3,000 trip himself.
"If I had the means, I would have gladly paid for the entire thing out of my own pocket," Mulhern said.
Mulhern dipped into a $3,100 discretionary account given to each City Council member to pay for her plane ticket and hotel room.
That money can be used for travel, said City Attorney Chip Fletcher.
"There aren't a lot of restrictions on those funds as long it's used for official duties," he said.
Neither Mulhern nor Lindell was traveling at the request of their respective public bodies.
And at a City Council meeting on Thursday, Mulhern called the trip a "symbolic visit," saying the council has no policy role relating to Cuba.
But in an interview later, she said the trip provided a benefit to residents by building relationships that might lead to expanded trade and travel now or in the future.
Travel to Cuba and trade with the country are limited by federal laws meant to force the country's communist regime out of power.
Mulhern said Tampa needs to expand the current legal trade and travel opportunities and be prepared to take advantage of new ones if U.S. policies change.
"My interest as an elected official in Tampa has been all about economic development, about jobs and bringing business to Tampa," she said. "Cuba fits in because of the fact that we have a major port, one of the biggest and closest to Cuba."
The trip marked the first visit to Cuba for both Lindell and Mulhern, who traveled under humanitarian visas.
While there, the two met with trade minister Alberto Betancourt and Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's national assembly.
Both Mulhern and Lindell said they plan to lobby federal officials to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.
"The bottom line is, if the U.S. could be making millions of dollars more a year through trade with Cuba, our local farmers and medical suppliers would benefit from that," Mulhern said. "I'm more sure since I came back that we can do more with the port and also with our airport."
Lindell said he planned to discuss the trip at his next Port Authority board meeting.
"We need to do all we can to encourage our Congress to lift the embargo and to allow trade and travel between Cuba and the United States," he said, noting that Cubans are hopeful that President Barack Obama will bring change to the policy. "It's something that could help everybody. It's the beginning of building bridges instead of building walls."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.