TALLAHASSEE — Rather than drive or fly commercial planes, a small group of lawmakers has billed taxpayers for the convenience of getting to Tallahassee on private planes — some of them linked to lobbyists and companies with a stake in the decisions legislators make.
The 19 Democratic and Republican legislators took private flights totaling more than $37,000 during the recent legislative session, state records show. That represents a tiny fraction of the state's $66.5 billion budget, but it raises questions about the relationships between lawmakers and the groups seeking their votes. And in a time of deep budget cuts affecting millions of Floridians, critics say it would be better to find a cheap commercial flight or simply drive — as constituents do.
"I believe you need to do everything you can to save taxpayer dollars," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who flies only commercial. "At the same time, you should be showing taxpayers you aren't being accommodated in a special way. Any government official should do their best to take a commercial flight with no lobbyists or lobbyist clients connected to it."
In some cases, the private flights were equivalent to or cheaper than commercial. But not always.
The costliest flier was Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, a successful trial attorney whose net worth exceeds $10 million. He regularly charged taxpayers for use of a private plane arranged by the Naples technology firm InfiNetwork, one of whose executives donated $250 to Grady's campaign. The bill for taxpayers: $7,850.
Contrast that with Miami Rep. James Bush III, 54, a teacher and minister who sometimes gets to Tallahassee on a Greyhound bus. The trip takes about 12 hours and costs less than $100 each way.
"My purpose is to go and help the taxpayers and get to my committee meetings," said Bush, a Democrat. "That's why the people elected me as their representative. That's why it is important to do things in a reasonable manner."
Difficult to check
The Office of Legislative Services has some rules governing lawmakers' airline travel, such as a ban on first-class commercial airfare unless no other seat is available. But other policies are lenient or difficult to enforce. For example, there is no limit to what lawmakers can seek in reimbursement for a coach ticket. So if they book at the last minute and the airline charges a more expensive fare, the state covers it.
"We encourage them to get the lowest airfare available," said Jim Heberle, a program manager in the Office of Legislative Services.
The state allows lawmakers to use private charters if there are no direct flights from their home city, and as long as the cost is "equal to or more economical" than a commercial fare offered at the time, Heberle said.
"But if they file their vouchers like a month later, it's hard to go back and determine what the commercial flights cost on that day," he said.
Grady flew three round trips between Tallahassee and Naples on a private, single-engine two-seater, at a cost of $1,250 to $1,500 each way. He stated on his travel vouchers that there are "no longer any direct flights from Naples to Tallahassee" and "private charter is most conducive and economical to House and constituent schedule."
"I saw this was a really good value," the freshman lawmaker told the Times/Herald. "We priced out the rarely available but difficult commercial options, combined with getting to and from an airport where the commercial flights are available, and it's pricey."
But Rep. Matt Hudson, a fellow Naples Republican, found a better value. His April 25 Delta flight from Tallahassee to Fort Myers had one stopover in Atlanta, and it cost taxpayers less than $525 round trip. The rental car from Naples to Fort Myers cost less than $40. He also drives a rental car from Naples to Broward County, part of which is in his district, where he can get a direct, round-trip flight from Fort Lauderdale to Tallahassee for less than $315.
"I am no different from the people I represent," said Hudson. "You know what? I watch my own expenses and I think when they elected me, they expected me to be doing the same up here. Because it's their money."
Sens. Mike Bennett, Garrett Richter and Nancy Detert on several weekends traveled together from Sarasota on a prop plane operated by Dolphin Aviation. The total bill to taxpayers was $12,355.
Campaign finance records show Dolphin Aviation owner Ronald Ciaravella and his company have donated often and generously to candidates including Detert and Bennett. Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, also used the Dolphin service this session and said the "beat-up" plane is "kind of like driving to Tallahassee in a 1958 Volkswagen. It's not the lap of luxury."
Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he and the other southwest Florida senators have negotiated with Ciaravella to fly together with a rate that is equivalent to commercial airfare. State records show Dolphin charged each lawmaker between $460 and $480 each way. Bennett said he is getting "a good deal" and traveling efficiently so that he can spend more time on legislative issues.
"It's really kind of a convenience thing," Bennett said. "I can get up there in an hour and a half on this plane. To drive it is 5 1/2 hours. People say, 'Well why don't you drive to Tampa and fly direct on commercial?' Because it takes me half the damn day to do it."
In 2005, legislators passed a law prohibiting lobbyists from giving them anything of value based on the idea that accepting gifts could directly or indirectly influence their votes. But as long as a legislator pays for the flight, the ban doesn't apply to trips on private jets, even if the flight offers the gift of convenience.
When American Airlines canceled a flight from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale in April because of bad weather, four South Florida lawmakers had an option most of their constituents did not: Rep. Anitere Flores and Sens. Nan Rich, Dan Gelber, and Alex Villalobos hitched a ride home on a private plane chartered by powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Then they billed taxpayers a total of $1,400.
"We were delayed and re-delayed," said Book, who represents more than six dozen clients. "There were virtually no flights until later on a Saturday."
Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he went with Book because he needed to get home to see his three children, ages 5 to 11.
Like the South Florida four, Fasano also found himself sitting for hours one night in Tallahassee, frustrated as the airport attendants announced delay after delay of his Continental flight to Tampa.
"They finally said everything was canceled, so I went home and waited for the flight in the morning," Fasano said. "The average citizen would have to wait it out. They could not get on the plane of a lobbyist. Just like that, we lawmakers should have to wait it out."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.