TALLAHASSEE — The chairman of a Florida Senate committee that oversees gambling relies on the plane owned by a gaming lobbyist for travel to Tallahassee and his Naples home.
Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Gaming, said that his primary mode of travel is Capital Air, owned by Dave Ramba, who is a licensed pilot, lawyer, fundraiser and prominent lobbyist.
In the past two years, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith and others have also flown on what one senator jokingly calls "Air Ramba."
"Yes, I fly on the airplane that I understand is owned by David Ramba.'' Richter told the Times/Herald. "I don't fly alone. It's my method of transportation. I receive an invoice for Capital Air. I submit that check for my reimbursement. … I don't see anything inappropriate about it.''
Ramba, according to legislators, is one of a handful of lobbyists who own planes and make them available for lawmakers.
The practice of lawmakers taking flights arranged by lobbyists is not illegal in Florida. Ethics Commission rules mainly require that lawmakers pay market rates on any chartered planes.
Ramba declined comment to the Times/Herald on the chartered flight arrangements with Richter and other lawmakers.
In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Ramba said his air charter business serves lots of customers, including lawmakers, and that he considers flying elected officials an age-old tradition in Tallahassee. "Lobbyists have been flying lawmakers for years," he said. "It's nothing new."
As a lobbyist, Ramba represents many clients with diverse interests. One, however, has gaming interests before Richter's Senate committee: Frontier Florida LLC, a software company that works with Internet cafes.
Another Ramba client is the Florida Optometric Association, which supports a bill that would allow optometrists to prescribe oral medications. The bill's sponsor: Richter.
As a fundraiser, Ramba has collected $867,000 in campaign contributions over the last two years for a political committee called Save Our Internet Access, which advocates regulations — not the banning — of Internet cafes.
According to FAA flight logs, Ramba's two planes have made 26 flights between Tallahassee and Naples in the last year. In nearly every case, Ramba's planes would fly from Naples to Tallahassee at the beginning of a legislative committee week and from Tallahassee to Naples at the end of the week. During the committee weeks of Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, Ramba's plane was used exclusively for flights between Tallahassee and Naples — flights at the beginning and end of the weeks.
Richter had supported legislation that would legalize Internet cafes for a year and put a moratorium on new ones until lawmakers complete a sweeping overhaul of the state's gambling laws next year.
But Richter and others have abandoned the moratorium and proposed a ban in the wake of this week's arrest of 57 individuals with ties to Jacksonville-based Allied Veterans of the World, a purported veterans charity that ran an illegal gambling operation in 49 Internet cafes in Florida.
The full House is scheduled to vote on the bill next week. Richter's committee will vote on a similar bill Monday.
Ramba's client, Frontier Florida LLC, the software company that works with Internet cafes, is not part of the investigation into Allied Veterans.
Richter said the cost of the Naples to Tallahassee flight is $2,400 and he usually splits the cost with other legislators, with each paying about $600 per trip. He does not pay for the cost of flying the plane back to Tallahassee.
Richter said he typically travels with other members of the Southwest Florida delegation. According to OneSky.com, the market cost of a small, charter plane from Tallahassee to Naples is between $2,100 and $2,800 per flight.
Federal Aviation records show that Ramba is the owner of two turbo-prop planes, a Cirrus and a Piper, and has used them for hundreds of flights across the state in the last two years.
Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she has flown on the plane a few times and normally pays hundreds of dollars each time, a fee she said is fair market rate.
"Depending on the number of people, it normally ranges from $460 a person to $660," she told the Times/Herald. "There's a cost for fuel, and pilot and whatever, and he basically splits whatever that cost is. ... It's market rates. I know because I checked it."
Weatherford's political committee paid $688 for a flight in September 2010, according to records from the Division of Elections.
For many politicians, the value in Ramba's charter air service is not the cost but the convenience.
Senate Democratic Leader Smith of Fort Lauderdale paid $765 in September 2012 for a flight to get him from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale in time for a campaign event for Senate Democrats.
"I did it once. I was in dire straits and we paid him for the full value of the flight,'' Smith said. "I don't do this often. That's why I wanted to make sure we paid."
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, said he has flown on the chartered flight a few times with Richter, and that he has paid upward of $700 for a trip to Tallahassee. He said commercial flights can be just as expensive as a chartered plane, and sometimes even more expensive during session.
"There are no direct flights from (Fort Myers)," he said. "You have to go through Atlanta, and the price is around $1,200."
Sen. Nancy Detert, also a Naples Republican, said she has been offered flights to fly on Charter Air but has declined.
"I just don't think it looks good to fly on a lobbyist's plane — and perception saves you a lot of explaining,'' she said. "Now, he's got a fancier plane – and I'm like woo-hoo Air Ramba!"
Times/Herald staff writers Toluse Olorunnipa and Steve Bousquet, along with Miami Herald staff writer Scott Hiaasen, contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas