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7 more charged in ethics inquiry

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford and six other current and former legislators were charged Tuesday with failing to disclose trips they accepted from lobbyists. The new allegations bring to 17 the number of current and former lawmakers summoned to court to answer misdemeanors charges in an investigation conducted by Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs.

It marks the first time in Florida history that so many legislators have faced criminal charges at the same time. Before this, only individual legislators have been accused of isolated crimes, legislative historians say.

The new charges include unreported trips forwhite wing dove hunting in Mexico, quail hunting in Georgia, duck hunting in Texas, elk hunting in Colorado, deer hunting in Alabama, a Caribbean cruise, football weekends and pleasure trips to Wyoming, Colorado and the Cayman Islands.

The other six charged Tuesday are House Appropriations Chairman Ron Saunders, D-Key West; Rep. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island; Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville; Sen. Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale; and former Reps. Dick Locke, D-Inverness, and Ron Johnson, D-Panama City.

Meggs filed the charges just as legislators were preparing to come to Tallahassee on Thursday for a special session to deal with the state's growing budget deficit.

Those charged Tuesday were notified to appear in Leon County Court on June 25 and 27, but Florida law allows them to file a written plea and avoid a personal appearance. The 10 officials charged with similar crimes last week have been directed to appear in court a week earlier.

Some legislators say they believe Meggs has interpreted the gift reporting law incorrectly and will fight the charges. Others say they are embarrassed about their failure to report trips and will enter pleas, pay their fines and get the charges behind them.

Meggs has offered to take no contest pleas and fines of $250 and $500 for each charge from those who do not fight the charges. Attorneys for several legislators say they are attempting to determine what effect, if any, such a plea might have on professional licenses that some legislators hold.

Crawford defended his failure to report the trips, but said he now believes it was an error and will pay a fine.

"Based on a widespread perception in the Legislature that trips were not reportable as gifts, I did not report several trips in 1987 and 1988," Crawford said in a written statement. "Nor did I keep a careful accounting of expenses I paid on those trips. That was an error."

Crawford was charged with two misdemeanors: failure to report a 1987 pleasure trip to Pinedale and Jackson Hole, Wyo., that he and his family took with phosphate lobbyists; and 1988 hunting trips to Mexico and Georgia.

Jones, the only Pinellas legislator charged, said prosecutors notified him of the pending charge early Tuesday. He is accused of failing to report a 1985 Caribbean cruise he took.

"If I have broken the law, I should be treated like everyone else," Jones said. "I didn't omit it on purpose and I didn't think it was appropriate to file an amended report six years later after I heard about it."

Jones said he will pay whatever fine is appropriate and get the issue behind him. Unlike several others who have condemned Meggs for filing the charges, Jones said he believes Meggs is just doing his job.

"It's not Meggs' fault that I didn't report it," Jones said. "It's irritating, but in the scope of things, it is not my highest priority."

Jones has been helping his 22-year-old daughter, Jill, deal with a life-threatening cancer that has left her seriously handicapped.

The other charges filed Tuesday are:

Saunders, two charges, failure to report a 1987 hunting trip to El Campo, Texas, and a 1988 University of Florida football weekend in Jackson, Miss. Saunders, a lawyer, said he hasn't decided how he will respond to the charges.

Kirkpatrick, one charge, failure to report 1988 hunting trips to Riverview, a posh hunting preserve near Camilla, Ga., and Texas. Kirkpatrick said he disagrees with Meggs' interpretation of the law, but is embarrassed and wants to get the issue behind him.

"Taking the penalty isn't the most comfortable thing to do, but it's probably the best thing at this point in time and that's what I'm going to do," Kirkpatrick said.

Scott, three charges, failure to report a 1986 hunting trip to Riverview; 1988 trips to Victoria, Mexico, Riverview and Foxfire Hunting Preserve in Georgia.

His attorney, Eddie Kay of Fort Lauderdale, said Scott never intentionally broke the law, but has not decided what he will do. Kay said he and Meggs disagree over whether "certain innocuous behavior" violated the law. Kay said he believes the issue should be determined in court.

"However, whether that is the correct emotional, political and economical thing to do remains to be seen," Kay said.

Locke, two charges, failure to report hunting trips to Riverview and Foxfire in 1987 and 1988.

Locke declined comment, referring calls to Dexter Douglass, the Tallahassee lawyer who represents him. Douglass said he has not determined what he will do.

Johnson, four charges, failure to report a 1985 Caribbean cruise; 1986 trips to Colorado and Riverview; a 1987 trip to Texas; and 1988 trips to Colorado, Riverview, New Orleans, and Alabama.

Johnson could not be reached for comment.

Current and former legislators charged with similar crimes last week were House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, Reps. John Long, D-Land O'Lakes, Sam Mitchell, D-Vernon, and Rob Trammell, D-Marianna; former Reps. Dale Patchett, R-Vero Beach, and Carl Carpenter, D-Plant City; Sens. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy, Winston "Bud" Gardner, D-Titusville, and Malcolm Beard, R-Seffner; and former Sen. Tim Deratany, R-Indialantic.