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Sorting out the truth in state politics

GOP records vague about who paid for Crist's family trip to Disney World

CRIST VISITS USF: Gov. Charlie Crist greets Emilia Soliman and Robert Gustaf at the USF Center for Entrepre- neurship on Tuesday, where he listened to students’ experiences with the program.

SCOTT MCINTYRE | Times

CRIST VISITS USF: Gov. Charlie Crist greets Emilia Soliman and Robert Gustaf at the USF Center for Entrepre- neurship on Tuesday, where he listened to students’ experiences with the program.

It was the eye-catching headline Friday.

A Republican Party of Florida investigation into party finances revealed that former party chairman Jim Greer and Gov. Charlie Crist spent a weekend with their families at Disney World in 2009.

The cost: more than $13,400.

The tab: picked up by Republican Party of Florida donors.

"My family paid for our personal expenses," an angry Crist responded Saturday.

Who paid for what? How much? And how do we know?

PolitiFact Florida reviewed Crist's weekend Disney getaway seeking answers. What we found is that while the governor tried to pay his own way, it's difficult to say with certainty that every dollar came from his pocket and not the wallets of party donors.

Crist, his wife, Carole, and her two daughters spent less than 48 hours at Walt Disney World, yet racked up at least $3,300 in charges on Carole Crist's American Express card, records show.

That's on top of $11,228.89 of charges billed to Republican Party of Florida cards.

Like many Americans who make the Disney pilgrimage, the Crists spent more than they planned.

"This Disney thing is a mess, there (sic) trying to charge the Gov rooms 1,300 a night," Greer e-mailed RPOF executive director Delmar Johnson at one point during the weekend trip to Disney's Contemporary Resort. "He and Carol (sic) are hot."

Charlie Crist's charges

For the record, the Republican Party — in the financial investigation and the accompanying news release — never said Crist used party money to pay for his Disney trip. But it was widely interpreted that way.

Just check the headlines: "Fla. GOP audit shows, Crist denies, party paid for his Disney, other trips" — Palm Beach Post. "GOP audit shows Gov. Charlie Crist went to Disney on party's credit card" — Tampa/St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP. "Audit: Crist, Greer took trips to Disney World on GOP credit card" — Tallahassee Democrat.

Armed with public records, news accounts, e-mails and the Crists' itemized receipt from Disney's Contemporary Resort, PolitiFact Florida endeavored to piece together the Crist/Greer vacation from June 12-15, 2009, with an emphasis on what money was being spent.

Plans for the weekend began to take shape in late May 2009. Greer told his executive assistant to arrange for rooms June 12-15 at Disney's Contemporary Resort — suites for the adults, two double bed rooms for the children and an additional room for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents protecting the governor. (FDLE covered its own costs — $411.75, excluding salaries, spokeswoman Heather Smith said.)

As for theme park tickets, Greer asked his assistant about getting some from Disney. They often donated tickets to the party. But not for Crist, Greer said. "Governor couldn't take anything like that," Greer's assistant, Lela Whitfield, wrote in an e-mail after speaking with Greer.

Fast forward to Friday, June 12, which began as a workday for Crist. He and three staffers flew in a state plane from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Myers for a bill signing. At 1:45 p.m., the plane left Fort Myers bound for Tallahassee but without Crist on board, according to flight logs.

Instead, according to Senate campaign finance records, Crist booked a Southwest Airlines flight to Orlando.

The Disney resort receipt provided by the Crist campaign shows that Crist's wife, Carole, paid for two rooms on the concierge level of the Contemporary Resort, not suites, for June 12 and June 13. Each room cost the going rate, $645 a night plus $80.63 in taxes, or $2,902.52 overall. The Crist family receipt includes an additional $359.05 in hotel charges during their stay: $140 from an arcade inside the hotel, $195.27 in three dining charges and $23.78 in gift shop and other charges.

The Crists checked out on the 14th, a day earlier than expected, records show.

At checkout, two things got messed up. First, the Crists thought the rooms would cost $300 each, not $645. And the early checkout also made it harder to reconcile the Crists' bill. Carole Crist was charged $4,712.82 but only spent $3,261.57, according to the itemized charges. The bill credits the difference, $1,451.25.

Crist spent Sunday night, June 14, in Fort Lauderdale, campaign finance records show. The next day, he visited the Hialeah Park race track. His total time in Orlando: less than 48 hours.

Plenty of questions

Determining the cost of the trip — for Crist and for the RPOF — and who paid for what is difficult for a number of reasons.

The RPOF investigation pegs the party's share at $13,435.59. But that number's wrong, the RPOF now admits. What was listed as a $1,103.35 charge is actually a credit, party credit card statements show. The trip cost the party $11,228.89.

All of the charges except a $809.36 charge at nearby Universal Studios were billed to Johnson's credit card, though he wasn't on the trip.

The arrangement was common, said Johnson's attorney, Robert Leventhal.

More than $4,200 billed to the party was charged on June 15, after Crist already had left and was in South Florida. It's not clear whether Greer remained.

Then there are e-mails provided by the party that suggest that the Crists were paying for the children's rooms and that Greer was paying for two suites, which can cost $1,000 or more a night. "The 2 regular rooms are all that The Gov and Carole are paying for," Johnson wrote to Greer on June 14, after questions about the bill came up.

Crist spokesman Danny Kanner said Crist and his family stayed in the rooms they paid for.

Ultimately, only Greer, Disney and maybe Crist really know what most of the RPOF charges are for. The Republican Party of Florida does not have an itemized receipt for the trip like the one Crist provided, just credit card statements showing the charges. The results of the RPOF investigation include a listing of those credit card purchases with the corresponding date. Nothing more.

PolitiFact Florida usually attaches a Truth-O-Meter ruling to stories like these. While it's clear the Crist family paid for two rooms and other charges, and were only in the Orlando-area for a short period, we can't say definitively they paid for everything on their own. And we can't say that they didn't.

The records just aren't clear, and the folks who might know, aren't talking.

GOP records vague about who paid for Crist's family trip to Disney World 09/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 10:07am]

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