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Daniel Ruth

Hitching a ride on a ship of tools

Life is often filled with mysterious twists of fate — and influence and on-board peanuts.

Things weren't looking very good for a bunch of Florida legislators last April. There they were — Rep. Anitere Flores and Sens. Nan Rich, Dan Gelber and Alex Villalobos — all facing the dismal prospect of having to spend the night in Tallahassee after their commercial American Airlines flight to South Florida was canceled.

Why this had to be as dreary a turn of events as John Daly having his car break down in a dry county.

Ironic, isn't it? So many pols yearn to get elected to their legislative offices and then can't wait to get out of the capital as fast and as often as possible.

As luck would have it, at that very moment, an aircraft materialized for them. Ron Book, one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, just so happened to be going in the same general direction as the four elected officials, allowing them to hitch a ride home.

Kismet — it's a pip is what it is.

And thus a crisis was averted as the quartet of lost politicians were able to spend some quality time with Book. No doubt everybody wiled away the time on the flight chatting about the latest installment of American Idol.

The flight on Ron Book Airways, enjoying the hospitality of a lobbyist who has donated $270,000 to Democrats and Republicans since 2000, cost the taxpayers $1,400. Not a bad return on investment.

The sad tale of four stranded legislators wandering about the Tallahassee airport with their thumbs out looking for a ride is but one instance of lawmakers taking advantage of the largesse of politically generous contributors, who also have the means to jet them back and forth to their jobs.

During the last legislative session, some 19 elected officials — Republicans and Democrats — flew aboard private aircraft owned by lobbyists and/or companies with interests at stake before the Florida Legislature, at a cost to the taxpayers of $37,000.

Some of the leading frequent fliers were two Naples Republicans, Rep. Tom Grady and Sen. Garrett Richter, who billed the state $7,500 and $5,221, respectively, for their air travel. Sarasota Republican Sen. Mike Bennett, turned in a $4,726 tab for his charter flights.

The logic behind using the private aircraft is that these legislators are so valuable, so important, so critical to the functioning of government they simply must climb aboard these planes owned by clout-gifted hotsy tots to attend to the business of the people.

"It's really kind of a convenient thing," said Bennett, R-Coach? So Icky!, who complained it takes at least half a day to get from his district to Tallahassee if he has to drive to Tampa to catch a flight. Let us now pause for an "Awwwwwww!"

This might come as something of a shock to the likes of Bennett and his fellow jet-setters, but you glad-handers aren't really that important to the process of state governance. Tallahassee will not turn into Deadwood if a handful of politicos have to endure some inconvenience getting to work.

Besides, it is figures like Ron Book, the Grand Ayatollah of the lobbying corps, who are really calling the shots in the capital anyway. He needs the tricked-out private jet. He has a real job, and it pays well.

It is certainly true that Tallahassee is not the most accessible seats of government. It is located about 20 miles east of where Moses lost his sandals and merely a hop, skip and jump from You Can't Get There From Here. It may well qualify as the J.D. Salinger of state capitals.

But Bennett and the other 18 passengers aboard their ship of tools certainly had to be aware when they ran for office in the first place that getting to work might well rival the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Indeed, a vast majority of state legislators on both sides of the aisle have endured the hassles and rigors of conveying themselves to and from Tallahassee without relying on aircraft owned by parties seeking to do business or otherwise benefit from votes taken in Tallahassee.

More troubling is the appearance of an all-too-cozy footsie-wootsie relationship between elected representatives of the people and deep-pocket special interests.

In public life, perception is reality. And if anyone thinks having access to lawmakers by generous political contributors offering their aircraft doesn't compromise a politician's integrity while also raising potential Sunshine Law violations, you would have to be more naive than Wee Willie Winkie negotiating for women's rights with the Taliban.

There's another way for Bennett and his fellow travelers to get to Tallahassee. Get in the car and start driving in a northerly direction, through Crystal River and Chiefland and Cross City and Perry. You'll get there — eventually, just like everybody else.

Hitching a ride on a ship of tools 07/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 8:01pm]

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