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University officials' travel remains in an ethics limbo

On New Year's Day, when the state's most avid football fans were in Dallas, New Orleans or Miami watching football bowl games, University Chancellor Charles Reed was at home glued to his television set.

It was the safest thing to do: The legality of taking free trips was in doubt because of new ethics laws that forbid public officials from accepting trips and gifts valued at more than $100.

Nearly two months later, the issue of whether the chancellor or regents can accept free trips to sporting events is still in doubt. Attorneys for the state Ethics Commission have drafted two opinions. One finds it illegal because "no public purpose" is served by trips; a second opinion concludes that Reed and the regents, as supervisors, have a duty to go.

"I always thought the chancellor and regents supervise the universities in a general sense," Reed said Thursday.

The Ethics Commission will determine which road to travel when it meets March 4 to consider the two opinions.

When the presidents of the University of Florida and Florida State University invited Reed and the regents to their bowl games, Reed said he decided to be on the safe side and ask the Ethics Commission:

"To me it was pretty straightforward and simple, but we couldn't get anyone to answer, so I enjoyed the bowl games on television."

Reed and members of the board of regents, who govern the state's nine universities, normally would have been among those accompanying the FSU Seminoles to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and the UF Gators to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

"All the Seminoles thought I was at the Sugar Bowl and all the Gators thought I was at the Cotton Bowl," Reed said.

The state's new ethics law was passed while legislators were under investigation for accepting trips and gifts from lobbyists. The new law allows gifts when there is a valid public purpose, but otherwise forbids gifts over $100 from lobbyists or those who hire lobbyists. All gifts valued at more than $25 must be reported.

In a related opinion drafted by Ethics Commission lawyers for consideration at next month's meeting, Public Service Commission (PSC) members and employees will not be in violation of the ethics law if they bill the state for travel and the state is reimbursed by a utility or another state or federal agency.

Ethics decision is delayed

TALLAHASSEE _ A special House panel put off a decision until Monday on whether a legislator is entitled to another chance to explain ethics charges even though the Ethics Commission already has found him guilty.

The Ethics Commission ruled Jan. 24 that Rep. Mike Langton, R-Jacksonville, violated the constitutional prohibition against representing clients before state agencies. The panel found he had improper contact with the Department of Community Affairs with his grant-writing business.