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Lawmakers ponder charges

Some legislators are embarrassed by the criminal charges filed against them and want to pay a fine and move on. Others are inclined to fight. That's the way things were Monday after 10 legislators charged with failing to disclose trips they took from lobbyists consulted with their lawyers and started planning their defenses.

State Sen. Winston "Bud" Gardner says he is inclined to fight even though "the politically expedient thing to do at this time would seem to be to admit I broke the law, even though I don't believe I did."

Gardner told his constituents in a letter that he doesn't think the law required him to report trips as gifts. He said he didn't report them unless the provider gave him cost information.

House Speaker T.K. Wetherell and others say they intend to admit they were wrong and pay a fine.

State Attorney Willie Meggs has offered the legislators a chance to enter no contest pleas, pay fines between $250 and $500 and avoid having a conviction record. Under state law, those charged with misdemeanors can enter pleas in absentia, pay their fines and never be forced to stand before a judge.

Several legislators say they plan to enter such pleas as quickly as possible.

"I'm hurt and embarrassed," said state Sen. Malcolm Beard, R-Seffner, a former Hillsborough County sheriff. "I've been in the criminal justice system long enough to know that ignorance is no excuse. If you dance, you have to pay the fiddler. So that's what I'm going to do."

Beard is accused of failing to report 1987 and 1988 hunting trips to Colorado and a 1988 hunting trip to Georgia.

"None of it was worth all of this," Beard said.

State Sen. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy, who claims enough pledges from Senate Democrats to take over as president in 1992, said he, too, is embarrassed and wants to pay his fine as quickly as possible.

"I acted in error," Thomas said. "I wasn't trying to deceive the public. I just want to acknowledge there was an error and we violated the law."

State Rep. John Long, D-Land O'Lakes, also has indicated that he is embarrassed and wants to pay his fine and get the issue behind him.

Thomas, Beard, Wetherell and former state Rep. Carl Carpenter, D-Plant City, all are represented by Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer who is a former chairman of the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Herron said Monday that he had hoped to have some of them pay their fines and have the charges behind them before the Legislature meets in special session Thursday, but he still is trying to nail down a few details.

Herron said he wants to be sure no contest pleas won't affect professional licenses that some of his clients hold.

Carpenter, former state Rep. Dale Patchett and former state Sen. Tim Deratany did not return telephone calls.

Tallahassee lawyer Dexter Douglass represents state Rep. Rob Trammell, D-Marianna, another of those charged. Douglass said Monday that he doesn't know what Trammell will do.

"My inclination is to plead him not guilty," Douglass said. "He hasn't done anything wrong. If he feels that way, he should contest the charges. Mr. Meggs has never been known for his legal ability."

Douglass has accused Meggs of bringing the charges to gain publicity to help him run for another office. Meggs denies it.

"I am running," Meggs said Monday. "I run three days a week down a dirt road behind my house for 30 minutes. I am running for my life, trying to be healthy."

Meggs had open heart surgery earlier this year to repair a leaky valve.

Douglass said Meggs has refused to allow his clients to plead no contest while reserving the right to appeal the validity of the law.

"We're going to treat it like we do any other case," Meggs said. "We don't give someone a bargain, a negotiated plea, and then give them the opportunity to fram (pound) us."

Gardner defended his failure to disclose a fishing trip to the Bahamas, a football weekend near Auburn and a Georgia hunting trip. He, like many other legislators, contends that the trips were not gifts within the meaning of the law and did not have to be reported.

Gardner said he relied on legislative arguments from the mid-1970s, when some members tried to amend the law to clearly identify trips as gifts and were defeated.

He also noted an Ethics Commission opinion indicating that airfare to a football game was not a gift.

Meggs says legislative arguments and the commission's decision were directed at Chapter 112 of the Florida Statutes; he filed charges under Chapter 111.

Legislators changed Chapter 111 in 1989 after the St. Petersburg Times disclosed the number of lawmakers who failed to report trips as gifts. Lawmakers abolished criminal penalties and raised the minimum reportable gift from $25 to $100.

In November, after Meggs began his investigation, legislators changed the law again, clearly identifying trips as gifts and forbidding the acceptance of all gifts valued at more than $100 from lobbyists and the people who hire them.

The charges filed Friday are only the first round. Other legislators are expected to be charged as soon as this week.