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Crist defends corporate jet use, declines to give more details

Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday he is carefully following state law with his use of private corporate jets, a practice that was the focus of weekend reports by the Times/Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Despite his strong support of openness and transparency as governor, Crist has not been willing to discuss in detail which corporations and donors are lending their planes (at Republican Party expense) for Crist's use to attend political events both in state and out of state.

"If there's personal travel, I pay for it personally," Crist said. "If there's political travel, it's paid for by the party. If there is state travel, it's paid for by the state, as required by law and to the letter of the law. I mean, to do what's right is what we're supposed to do."

Crist's remarks illuminated his overriding concern in planning his travel: He said he doesn't want to have to explain why he used a state-owned aircraft for political purposes, so he hasn't done so. In fact, he bought a commercial ticket with his own money to travel to Barack Obama's inauguration as president in Washington on Jan. 20. "You have no idea how cautious I am — well, you probably do," Crist said.

Later in the day, reporters pressed Crist to provide copies of canceled checks to show how he had paid for these flights, and also who they were with. Crist declined.

"I don't know where they are. Anything else?" he asked.

Does he still have the checks? "No, I don't," Crist said.

In his two years in office, Crist has flown to events on planes belonging to Harry Sargeant, a Boca Raton businessman whose contracts to send fuel to troops in Iraq have been questioned by Congress; Dick Mandt of Tampa, a former publisher of shopper newspapers; and Daytona Beach home builder Mori Hosseini, among others. All are Republican Party fundraisers.

State law requires political parties to account for all expenditures including travel, but not to specify which flights are flown by which public official. So it's impossible to see which corporate interests are flying Crist around the most or whether corporate executives are enjoying exclusive airborne access to Crist.

Travel records obtained by the Times/Herald show Crist has been careful as governor to avoid using state planes for political or personal gain. While that has increased his reliance on corporate planes to maintain a busy political schedule, it has saved taxpayers money, too.

A side-by-side comparison of Crist's use of state planes in his first two years in office and Jeb Bush's last two years as governor shows Crist used state planes less often.

In that period, Bush flew nearly 137,000 nautical miles on a state plane for a total of nearly 429 hours in the air, or the equivalent of nearly 18 days. Crist flew 75,000 nautical miles on a state plane for a total of 241 hours, or 10 days, since he became governor, according to official state manifests.

On Tuesday, Crist said when he found out last week that TV reporter Mike Vasilinda was among the sponsors of the annual First Amendment Foundation luncheon, he handed Vasilinda a $20 bill.

Crist defends corporate jet use, declines to give more details 03/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 9:11pm]
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