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The story behind the story about Cabinet members' air travels

What's often lurking behind a news story is another story.

That's certainly true in this week's coverage on how the two major candidates for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum, have used — and maybe misused — state planes during a grinding recession while many Floridians are suffering.

Both Sink and McCollum claim to be fiscally prudent stewards of taxpayers' money.

But Sink has used a plane to pick up and drop off family members in Tampa, and once flew at taxpayer expense from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to catch a commercial flight to her condo in the Bahamas. She has reimbursed taxpayers for 11 trips her husband, Bill McBride, has taken on a state-owned plane.

McCollum flies less often than Sink but he repeatedly summons an empty plane from Tallahassee to his home in suburban Orlando to take him on official trips. Those deadhead travels have cost taxpayers $59,000 over 21/2 years.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

Days before our front-page story appeared Thursday, supporters of McCollum began circulating details on Sink's questionable flights to reporters, including the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, on an off-the-record basis.

No one from Sink's side was doing the same. Republicans are usually more aggressive in Tallahassee at shopping story angles.

But this involved public information that can be interpreted more than one way. We planned all along to research both officials' travel, but the people aligned with McCollum were rushing the timetable. A rule of thumb is that what's being pushed on us is being shopped to other reporters, and this was not a story we wanted to see elsewhere first.

When I asked a person who was pushing Sink's trips how long it might before another paper went with the story, the person said: "You're good for 48 hours."

The motives of the people circulating news of Sink's trips is not at issue here. Rather, it's how reporters avoid being manipulated for partisan advantage. My colleague Mary Ellen Klas and I quickly determined that while some Sink trips were questionable, it did not make sense to limit our review to her travel when her opponent also flies regularly and his travel data is in the same file as Sink's.

What the McCollum side wanted was a blast against Sink that would provide the essential underpinnings for a mail piece or TV ad hammering her for travel abuses.

To limit our reporting exclusively to Sink, we decided, would make us an accessory of the McCollum campaign, not to mention provide a poor service to our readers.

McCollum's people may have seen it as another case of liberal media "in the tank" for Sink. Justin Sayfie of the Sayfie Review, a prominent Republican activist and fundraiser, Twittered thusly: "Could be wrong, but suspect that Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Lucy Morgan would have written today's Times story differently."

When McCollum's people sensed that our reporting would not be a Sink-only expose, lo and behold, a story appeared on the statewide Associated Press wire Wednesday that focused almost exclusively on Sink's travel. AP beat us to the punch, all right, but with a story that made no mention of McCollum's use of state aircraft to and from his home.

The AP story was less detailed than our Thursday report, but did include a quote from McCollum's campaign manager, Matt Williams, describing Sink using a state plane as "shocking … a pickup and dropoff service for family members."

The AP story was cut and pasted into a Republican Party news release that was headlined: "Florida CFO flew family members on state plane."

On Friday, as we asked Sink to justify using a state plane to catch that flight to the Bahamas, her office released a one-sentence statement: "CFO Sink has directed her office to conduct a thorough and immediate review of the department's use of the state plane."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

The story behind the story about Cabinet members' air travels 06/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 2:14pm]
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