Three current or former Florida legislators, including the man in line to be the next Senate president, pleaded no contest Thursday to charges arising from free trips they accepted from lobbyists. Sen. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy; Sen. Malcolm Beard, R-Seffner; and former Rep. Carl Carpenter, D-Plant City, filed written pleas to the charges in County Court in Tallahassee early Thursday afternoon, while the Legislature met across the street in an unrelated special session. During the session, Thomas said he has the votes he needs to become president in 1992.
Under the plea agreements, they will pay fines from $500 to $1,250 for failing to report their trips as gifts. The charges are misdemeanors.
The three became the first to face up to their charges, but they will not be the last. Tallahassee-area prosecutor Willie Meggs has charged 17 past and current state lawmakers with failure to report their free trips, and more charges are expected.
One of those named, Sen. Winston "Bud" Gardner, D-Titusville, took the floor of the Senate on Thursday to vow that he will fight his charges. Gardner and some other legislators argue that they weren't required to report the trips.
Gardner also disputed newspaper articles that suggested that legislators retaliated against Meggs during the 1991 session by giving his office less money than it should have received.
Meggs noted after the session that his office was the only one in the state to receive less money from the Legislature than his counterparts in the public defender's office. Gardner said legislators followed an established formula to come up with the dollars that were appropriated.
Gardner, a retired Marine colonel, said he initially planned to submit and enter a plea to the charges. But he woke up early on the day he was to be charged and decided he had to fight, he said.
Gardner said he expects to go into debt to pay his attorney in the case. "But I'm in it for the long haul because my personal honor and my integrity mean too much to me to file otherwise," he said.
Gardner is charged with failing to disclose a 1988 hunting trip to a Georgia preserve, a 1986 trip to Treasure Cay, and a 1985 trip to Pine Mountain, Ga., for a college football game.
Thomas was charged with failing to disclose a 1985 hunting trip to Quail Ridge in Georgia and 1987 hunting trips to Monterrey, Mexico, and Riverview Plantation in Georgia.
"I just wanted it behind me," Thomas said.
Beard's decision to file his plea appeared to be more difficult. Beard, 72, served as constable and then sheriff of Hillsborough County for more than 20 years, between 1957 and 1978.
"That's a long time to enforce the law, and I have never knowingly violated the law," Beard said. "I hate to admit doing something wrong when I didn't think I did."
Beard was charged with failing to report two elk-hunting trips to Colorado in 1987 and 1988.
Carpenter is a former Plant City legislator who retired this year to become an aide to Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford. He was charged with failing to report 1986 trips to Colorado and to the World Series in Boston; 1987 trips to Alabama, Wyoming, Mexico, Georgia and Maine; and 1988 trips to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe and hunting trips to Georgia, Texas and Alabama.
Carpenter could not be reached for comment.
The three filed almost identical plea agreements drafted by Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron. They did not admit that they were guilty. They will not formally be found guilty, nor will they be required to perform community service.
The pleas could be withdrawn if state officials determine that the criminal charges would cause the three to lose their government retirement benefits. Beard said he doesn't expect that to happen, although Herron said that isn't yet clear.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Guarisco, who has handled the cases, declined to comment in detail on the pleas while other cases are outstanding. He said the three legislators will not receive any special treatment because of their position.
Herron noted that while the pleas don't require community service, the fines are relatively large.