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State: Keep your cash, Kottkamp

TALLAHASSEE — Stung by criticism of his extensive taxpayer-funded travel, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp offered to repay the state when a Florida Highway Patrol trooper escorts him to and from political events in a state car.

The state's response: no thanks. Keep your money.

Kottkamp, a Republican candidate for attorney general, is frequently on the road on official business and must balance the need to raise money and seek political support, always with a patrolman at his side and a state car at his disposal.

He wrote the state a check for $1,147, which he said represented the cost of mileage to and from political events in the three months ending Sept. 30 at the state reimbursement rate of 44.5 cents a mile.

"We're just trying to do the right thing. Budgets are tight," Kottkamp said. "It was just to make sure that we were doing everything aboveboard and doing the right thing."

His campaign Web site, www.jeffkottkamp.com, carries a policy statement that the Highway Patrol will log all miles to escort Kottkamp "to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to transport the lieutenant governor to events related to the attorney general campaign."

But when Kottkamp's check arrived this week at the patrol's parent agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, officials refused to accept it.

"We believe it's our responsibility to ensure the safety of the lieutenant governor, period," agency spokesman Dave Westberry said. "Reimbursement is not necessary. We take our responsibility very seriously."

A memorandum dated Wednesday from the agency's senior assistant general counsel, Judson Chapman, cited the legal obligation of the Highway Patrol to assign one officer at the rank of lieutenant or higher to the Lieutenant Governor's Office on a full-time basis.

Chapman's memo said that "both officer and vehicle are assigned to that office without regard to the purpose of particular travel."

Gov. Charlie Crist is shadowed by one or more state law enforcement agents at all times, including when he is at purely political events like fundraisers and receptions. He has said his campaign would not reimburse the state for security at campaign events, noting that previous governors did not.

The executive director of the highway safety agency answers to Crist and the state's three elected Cabinet members.

Instead of reimbursing the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Kottkamp said he will make a $1,147 charitable donation to the state treasury.

The returned check marks the second time that Kottkamp has been rebuffed in efforts to repay the state for part of his travel.

The Department of Management Services initially declined Kottkamp's offer to reimburse the agency for occasions in which his wife and son flew on state aircraft in 2007. But Kottkamp did send the state a check for $3,836 in February to cover those flights, and he reimbursed the state $6,600 for other questionable flights that were reported by newspapers.

Kottkamp faces a Dec. 4 hearing before the state Commission on Ethics on a complaint by David Plyer of Clearwater over nearly $500,000 in airplane flights and ground travel in a state-owned sport utility vehicle over a two-plus year period.

An unoccupied state plane flew to Fort Myers last Nov. 28 to take Kottkamp and his wife to the Florida-Florida State football game. A state trooper drove Kottkamp to suburban Atlanta in the spring so he could attend a Kenny Loggins concert as part of a surprise 50th birthday party for a close friend, Tallahassee lobbyist Steve Metz.

Kottkamp, a lawyer, has hired a former state Supreme Court justice and a former deputy attorney general to help him defend himself against the ethics complaint, which could be politically damaging if the commission votes to pursue an investigation.

"I take the people's trust very seriously, and I've always strived to be the most ethical and above-board public servant that I could be. That's how I've always conducted myself ," Kottkamp said. "We'll let the commission do its work, and we'll know soon enough."

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

To read about Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp efforts to reimburse the state for political travel and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' response, go to links.tampabay.com.

State: Keep your cash, Kottkamp 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 9:44pm]

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