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Tallahassee's gift problem

"Big Sam" Mitchell cuts an imposing swath across North Florida on the campaign trail. Last week the tall, portly state representative from Vernon was helping introduce former U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles and running mate Buddy MacKay to voters from the panhandle counties where he lives and works.

"I want you to elect me a governor I can work with," Mitchell told his constituents as the first breath of autumn chilled a small crowd outside the Washington County Agriculture Center and Livestock Pavilion in Chipley.

Mitchell, a Democrat, first served in the Legislature for four years in the 1950s, but left in 1960 and didn't return until he was elected again in 1978. He won re-election this year without opposition and is quick to tell Panhandle voters that he and their other legislators deserve the credit for new prisons that have brought jobs to poor communities in the past few years.

In a sense, Mitchell is still lodged somewhere in the 1950s, unaware that the old way of doing things is about to change.

For years, Mitchell has been a legislator who accepts hunting trips, cigars and other gifts from lobbyists. He has an annual hunt for legislators and sends bills to lobbyists to cover the costs.

When invitations went out this year for Sam's dove hunt, it came on House stationary from his office as speaker pro tempore, a mostly honorary position that designates him as sort of an assistant speaker.

"P.S. This gift does not have to be reported. Ha!!!" Mitchell noted at the bottom.

As he sat behind a table sipping a soft drink and eating a sandwich during the campaign across the Panhandle with Chiles last week, Mitchell talked about the turmoil over gifts and legislative ethics.

He is especially fond of hunting trips to Mexico and doesn't think much of a proposal to ban the acceptance of gifts valued at more than $100.

"If they tell me I can only take a $99 hunting trip, they've just made a liar out of me," Mitchell told Senate President Bob Crawford and a St. Petersburg Times reporter. "They'll just force everything under the table, the way it used to be back in 1955."

Mitchell's attitude probably is not typical among legislators, but there are enough who think like him that it poses a problem for leaders like incoming House Speaker T.

K. Wetherell, D-Daytona Beach, and those who feel something has to be done.

His attitude is also rejected by Chiles and Gov. Bob Martinez. Although they differ on many issues, both have called for an absolute ban on giving gifts to public officials. After hearing of Mitchell's comments, Chiles decided to reinforce his plea with a weekly radio address Saturday.

"We can end the controversy over gifts and trips provided by lobbyists and the private interests they represent," Chiles said. "It's simple: no gifts and no trips."

Some legislators agree the gift-taking has grown out of control. Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, is among those who has publicly expressed concern.

Grant notes that one Tallahassee club had to change its rules because one legislator was constantly showing up for lunch and dinner, ordering expensive wine and charging it to various lobbyists. Now the club requires that the lobbyist be in attendance or approve the charge in advance, Grant says.

"The lobbyists had a hard time saying no, so the club had to change its policy to stop the abuse," Grant added.

Other legislators have abused the hospitality of lobbyists by checking into hotel rooms on a lobbyist's tab and buying golfing equipment, clothes, Dom Perignon champagne and other goodies.

Last Christmas Grant got a telephone call from an industry with important legislation pending before the Senate. They had tickets to the Super Bowl in New Orleans and offered to provide air fare, hotels and a fun weekend.

"I simply said no," Grant recalled.

A number of legislators believe disclosure of all trips will quickly put an end to some of the more exotic expeditions that lobbyists pay for.

A few legislators already refuse to accept gifts from lobbyists. Some, like Republican Reps. Jeff Huenink and Sandy Safley of Clearwater, like to go on some trips with lobbyists, but pay their own expenses.

Other legislators say they lack enough power to get invitations for the more exotic trips. Some are making jokes about it.

"Basically it's funny," says Rep. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "About the time any of us get important enough to be invited anywhere they change the rules. Here I am getting invited to Starke and I read about people going to France."

Sens. Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Tim Deratany, R-Indiatlantic, went to Paris with lobbyists last year. They claim they paid their way and have reportedly produced records indicating they wrote checks to the lobbyists for $1,400. Trouble is, the trip cost between $25,000 and $30,000 for the two legislators and two lobbyists. That would amount to as much as $7,500 a person and leaves a rather large "gift" on the table.

Several lobbyists say the gifts disclosed so far are just the tip of the iceberg. If that's true, the problem goes much deeper than anyone has guessed.

It also means that legislative leaders may have more trouble than they foresee in gaining passage of an ethics bill in November. Incoming Speaker Wetherell and Sens. Gwen Margolis, D-North Miami and Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale, who are battling to become president of the upper chamber, have vowed to pass legislation that will resolve the problem.

It will be no simple task. Too many legislators have been too long at the trough. And some members don't take all of the questions being raised by State Attorney Willie Meggs and the Ethics Commission very seriously.

"If everybody who took a trip is guilty, then there won't be a Legislature," says Rep. Carl Carpenter, D-Plant City. "Almost everybody has been on some trip."

Lucy Morgan is Tallahassee bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times.