TALLAHASSEE — The state Commission on Ethics on Friday dismissed complaints against three high-ranking elected officials over their frequent use of state airplanes, including trips involving family members and political activities.
The commission said it had no choice but to dismiss the allegations because state law is too vague regarding what would be improper use of state planes.
The action clears both leading candidates for governor in 2010, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, as well as Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, a candidate for attorney general.
A probable cause finding against any of the three would have meant a lengthy investigation, political embarrassment and hefty legal fees.
A Times/Herald investigation in June found dozens of cases in which McCollum called for an empty plane to fly him from his suburban Orlando home to his Tallahassee office, and cases in which Sink had a plane make side trips to her suburban Tampa home for her convenience or for family members.
The recommendation by Craig Willis, the special advocate or prosecutor in the three cases, cited (in Sink's case) the lack of "clearly articulated legal or regulatory standards" that define what constitutes improper use of state-owned aircraft.
Sink issued a statement in which she said she appreciated the commission's "thorough review of the facts in this case and I am pleased the commission found no cause to support the complaint."
"The ethics commission confirmed what we already knew," said McCollum's attorney, Richard Coates. "The attorney general is pleased this matter is concluded."
Kottkamp, who predicted he would be exonerated, praised the ethics commission for its thoroughness. "I always felt, when they got all the facts, they would find my use of the plane was appropriate," Kottkamp said.
The ethics commission's decisions usually remain confidential until a news release several days later. But all three officials were eager to clear their names, so they waived their right to confidentiality, as the law allows.
The investigation into Sink's flights found 11 instances when a state plane was "diverted" to the Tampa area to pick up or drop off Sink near her Thonotosassa home "in a manner that does not readily appear to have served a public purpose."
The report quoted Sink as saying such travel was "common practice" among high-ranking state officials.
The complaint against Kottkamp was filed by Dave Plyer, a citizen activist from Clearwater who attended Friday's discussion of Kottkamp's flights.
Plyer said the commission thoroughly discussed the issue and that the panel will make a recommendation to the Legislature that it amend state law "to draw a much clearer distinction as to what constitutes business travel and political travel."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.