Saturday, February 17, 2018
Politics

A history of Florida's gift ban: Scandal. Reform. Repeat.

TALLAHASSEE — Free hunting trips, whether to King Ranch in Texas or destinations closer to home, are a fixture of Florida politics.

It was nearly 25 years ago that details emerged about lawmakers hunting and fishing with lobbyists. Their crime: not reporting the trips, which was a violation of a 1970 law.

Back then, all county and state elected officials were required to report gifts worth more than $25, so the public would have an idea of who might be influencing their politicians.

In 1989, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) published a story about C. Earl Henderson, a Gulf Power lobbyist who spent more than $175,000 to feed and entertain lawmakers during numerous hunting and fishing trips dating back to the mid-1980s. Documentation about the trips had been made available as part of a grand jury investigation into the utility, which pleaded guilty to conspiring to make illegal campaign contributions.

That sparked a wider state investigation that found few lawmakers had bothered to comply with the gift disclosure law.

In 1992, after a two-year investigation, Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs charged more than two dozen state lawmakers, and they all pleaded guilty to failing to disclose free trips from lobbyists, including hunting trips to Georgia, Texas and Mexico, and vacations in Paris, Zurich, San Francisco and Colorado.

"The poor lobbyist for crippled children had no money. They couldn't get in to see the lawmakers when they needed to,'' Meggs said. "It was a bad thing."

Lawmakers slashed Meggs' budget, but they also prohibited themselves from accepting gifts worth more than $100.

To get around that, lobbyists began giving the political parties major contributions. The parties then passed the money along to specific candidates and officials.

"It's a roundabout way of accomplishing the same thing they were accomplishing with the gift, except it's harder to follow," Meggs said recently.

In 1999, the state's Commission on Ethics voted 7-1 that it was acceptable for a donor to give the Republican Party of Florida $15,000 in Disney World admission tickets that the party then doled out to 97 GOP lawmakers for a fundraiser.

That decision steered more power to party leaders, leading to a showdown with Senate President Tom Lee in 2005. That July four GOP state senators took a $48,000 trip to Canada, courtesy of a gambling lobbyist pushing for slot machines in Florida, and Lee knew nothing about it until reporters told him.

"It bothered me to the extent that it wasn't a legitimate fundraising trip," Lee says now. He then pushed for a gift ban that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts of any value.

Backed by then-House Speaker Allan Bense, Lee passed legislation that also required party leaders to approve such contributions in writing before accepting them.

Among the critics of the gift ban: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who was in Congress at the time it became law. In a 2012 interview, Putnam called it "dumb," and "a disincentive for fellowship."

That extra written approval didn't change much. Lobbyists still could funnel contributions to lawmakers through the parties.

In 2007, the state Republican Party tapped as its chairman Jim Greer, whose lavish spending became legendary.

But as Greer's benefactor, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, lost favor with Republicans, so did Greer. After booting him in early 2010, the party released an audit that found $500,000 in expenses during Greer's tenure that had little to do with official business. He pleaded guilty to theft and money charges, ending a trial that would have shone a light on GOP spending, and went to jail.

Since Greer left, the party has spent freely on items such as $192,000 for flights aboard Execujet and $1,300 on cigars. There's a $1,343 stay at The Drake in Chicago, and $68,112 for various trips to The Breakers in Palm Beach.

The reports are not written for public clarity. A Disney Cruise fundraiser that incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli organized last August at a cost of $71,041 is listed as "DCL C&I Direct."

King Ranch isn't disclosed at all, even though a stay there would cost thousands, and half a dozen officials confirmed they have gone on trips they call "party fundraisers.''

Told about the phantom King Ranch trips, Lee conceded there's room for improvement.

"We're in a better place than we were," Lee said. "But I fully acknowledge it's not perfect.

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