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For lawmakers, gift season still is year-round

The fun, it would seem, has gone out of being a legislator. Seventeen of them have been charged with crimes for failing to report travel and entertainment at lobbyists' expense. And now a new law they passed last session prohibits them from soliciting such trips.

But not so fast. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lawyers for the House and Senate are telling legislators they still may ask lobbyists to foot the bill for food and entertainment at a conference in Orlando this summer. They may take trips to the Soviet Union, Japan and Nicaragua, and they may accept free parking at airports.

When they travel, they'll have legal opinions in their back pockets saying it's okay. Whenever questions arise over just what is legal, the new law allows House and Senate members to "reasonably rely" on an advisory opinion from the general counsel in each house.

Dozens of legislators have asked, and, in most cases, lawyers in both houses have said yes.

Rep. Everett Kelly, D-Tavares, wants to solicit donations from Habitat for Humanity lobbyists for an Everett Kelly Appreciation Day. House Attorney Tom Tedcastle says the collections are legal because they would benefit a charitable organization _ not Kelly.

Rep. Sam Mitchell, D-Vernon, still may have lobbyists pick up the tab for all the food and drink he serves at his annual hunting party for other legislators. It's legal, Tedcastle determined, because Mitchell has arranged for lobbyists to pay a third party, who is not a government official, and Mitchell won't receive any of the money.

Under the new law, public officials may not solicit gifts and may not accept gifts valued at more than $100 from lobbyists and the businesses that hire them. They are free to accept gifts and trips from others, as long as they disclose them in quarterly reports filed with the state.

In the House, lawmakers have requested more than 25 opinions. Tedcastle has approved most of the questioned trips and gifts, but he cautioned several legislators that they will have to report them when they file disclosure reports.

In the Senate, attorneys Steve Kahn and Mallory Horne have issued five opinions. Horne said he thinks legislators who comply with the written opinions can't be punished, even if the state Ethics Commission later takes a different view.

The new law, which some legislators have claimed is riddled with loopholes, took effect Jan. 1. It was passed in a special session last fall during a criminal investigation into the trips and gifts legislators failed to report. State Attorney Willie Meggs says he intends to charge the more than the 17 he already has accused.

Opinions issued on the new law include:

Approval of efforts to raise at least $30,000 from lobbyists to provide food and entertainment for more than 2,000 legislators who will convene in August in Orlando for the National Council of State Legislatures.

Rep. Kelly says he needs to raise the money because Florida will be host to legislators from the 49 other states at the weeklong conference, which includes events at Sea World and Epcot.

Tedcastle concluded that solicitations for council events are legal because the organization would benefit, not an individual legislator or state employee. The new law prohibits soliciting any gift from a lobbyist if it's only for the personal benefit of the public official or a family member.

Rep. Ron Silver, D-North Miami, may accept a weekend retreat in the Bahamas provided by Parkway Regional Hospital in Miami because he is a member of the hospital's governing board and can consider it to be in return for his services.

Rep. Kathy Chinoy, D-Jacksonville, may accompany her husband, a doctor, to a California convention because it will be a gift from her husband, who will be accepting it from a pharmaceutical company.

It was okay for Rep. Jack Ascherl, D-New Smyrna Beach, to attend the Kentucky Derby even though the trip was paid for by Humana, a health-care company that hires lobbyists. Ascherl is an insurance broker and earned the trip when he placed an order with the company and not because of his legislative duties, Tedcastle determined.

Rep. David Flagg, D-Gainesville, still may accept free tickets to University of Florida football games because each ticket is valued at $18. Flagg still may buy season tickets without paying dues to Gator Boosters, an organization that others must pay $300 apiece to join before they may buy season tickets.

Tedcastle said donations to Gator Boosters are tax-deductible as charitable contributions and exempt under a section of the law that allows public officials to purchase tickets from charitable organizations for less than the value charged to others.

Reps. Carlos Valdez, R-Miami, and Luis Morse, R-Miami, were allowed to visit Nicaragua at the invitation of its president and the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism. The trip is acceptable, Tedcastle said, because Nicaragua does not lobby the state Legislature. He said both will have to report the trip as a gift when they file their reports in July.

Volusia County legislators may accept a free telephone line installed by county officials in legislative offices although the county hires a legislative lobbyist. Tedcastle said the service is a gift to the state, not to the legislators.

Tedcastle said legislators may want to report the telephone service as a gift.

Rep. Jeff Huenink, R-Clearwater, was allowed to solicit money from businesses for a visiting Australian political delegation because the gifts were not for his personal benefit.

Rep. Joe Arnall, R-Jacksonville Beach, may continue to share a Tallahassee apartment with a lobbyist as long as he pays his share of the rent, utilities and other expenses.

Rep. George Crady, D-Yulee, may accept expenses from the National Marine Manufacturers Association for a weekend in Miami if he makes a speech and considers it an honorarium, but might not be able to accept them if he stays an extra night and considers the expense a gift that would be valued at more than $100.

Hispanic lawmakers were allowed to attend a Cuban Independence Day celebration that included cocktails and lunch because food and drink consumed at a single sitting is not considered a gift.

Rep. Patricia Muscarella, R-Clearwater, may accept a trip to the Soviet Union offered by the American Council of Young Political Leaders and funded by the United States Information Agency. She must report the trip as a gift.

Rep. Willie Logan, D-Miami, and other legislators may raise money for a foundation operated by the Conference of Black State Legislators because the money would benefit a charitable organization.

Tedcastle warned Logan that legislators may not solicit gifts from lobbyists or their employers. Last month, Logan conceded to the St. Petersburg Times that he had been soliciting $250 donations from lobbyists to pay for a party in an apparent violation of the new law. Later, Logan said he merely was accepting an offer from lobbyists.

Rep. Jack Tobin, D-Margate, was advised that legislators no longer will be able to accept all-expense-paid trips to foreign universities that have established links with Florida universities unless the legislator is a university employee. In the past, legislators have accompanied educators on trips to Canada, Brazil and other foreign countries at taxpayers' expense.

Opinions issued in the Senate:

Sen. Patsy Kurth, D-Malabar, and Rep. Tom Mims, D-Lakeland, may accept free airport parking as long as they move their cars before the value of the gift exceeds $100.

Sen. Bill Bankhead, R-Jacksonville, may accept free office space from CSX Transportation Inc. even though the company employs legislative lobbyists. Bankhead gets the space because he is a CSX employee, not because he is a legislator, Senate Attorney Steve Kahn determined.

Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, may accept free airplane trips if the airplane is provided by someone who does not lobby the Legislature, but he must report the gift.

Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, may accept travel expenses from the American Legislative Exchange Council for attendance at meetings because the organization does not hire a legislative lobbyist. He must report the expenses as a gift, Kahn said.

Sen. Peter Weinstein, D-Tamarac, may accept expenses for speeches at a Civil Air Patrol meeting in Daytona Beach and may claim state travel expense money for driving to the conference and making speeches for the Civil Air Patrol and the Orlando Jewish Federation on the following day.