TALLAHASSEE — At a time when he faces an ethics complaint over state-paid travel, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp had a state trooper drive him and his family to suburban Atlanta last weekend for a surprise birthday party for a Tallahassee lobbyist.
In a state-owned vehicle, Kottkamp and his wife joined lobbyist Steve Metz and family members at a Saturday night concert in Peachtree City, Ga., featuring soft-rock singer Kenny Loggins.
Kottkamp said the taxpayer-funded drive was legitimate and noted that the law requires the Florida Highway Patrol to provide security protection for him 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"It doesn't matter if it's a public or private event. They're there to provide safety and security, whether it's the governor or for me," Kottkamp said. "If I'm traveling, whether it's state business or not, if they're going to be providing meaningful security, it's going to be all the time."
FHP spokesman Col. Ernesto Duarte said the law is clear: "We go where he goes and we take our mission very seriously."
Kottkamp said he paid for his hotel room out of his own pocket, while the trooper's one-night hotel stay of $106 will be charged to taxpayers. Duarte said public money wasn't used to buy a concert ticket for the trooper.
The lieutenant governor described Metz as a good friend. Metz is registered to represent 34 clients before the executive branch, including the Florida Bar, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Walt Disney World as well as parimutuels, pharmaceutical firms and financial companies.
"It was a special day for him," Kottkamp said. "His family specifically asked that I be there." Metz said: "He's a very good, close friend. My daughter invited him."
Clearwater resident David Plyer filed an ethics complaint against Kottkamp in February following media reports that the lieutenant governor charged more than $400,000 in airplane travel during his first two years in office. The complaint has cleared its first hurdle, a step known as legal sufficiency.
Kottkamp's political future could soon be at a crossroads. If Gov. Charlie Crist drops a re-election bid to run for the U.S. Senate, and Attorney General Bill McCollum runs for governor, Kottkamp may run for attorney general.
Kottkamp said that last July he began flying less and driving more to save taxpayers' money. The trooper assigned to protect him has charged more than $62,000 in travel expenses over the past two years in addition to his $74,000 salary.
Records released Wednesday show that in the first two years of the Crist/Kottkamp administration, Kottkamp's office ranked second only to Crist's in taxpayer-funded air travel, despite the lieutenant governor's light schedule and few duties.
The Department of Management Service said that from January 2007 through December 2008, Kottkamp's office charged the state $722,101. Crist's office charged $972,332.
Questions over Kottkamp's frequent flights between Tallahassee and his hometown of Fort Myers prompted some legislators to consider selling the state's King Air 350 prop plane.
But Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who oversees the aircraft pool's budget, said legislators decided against that for now.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Alex Leary contributed to this report.