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Aviation officials defend expenses

For more than 25 years, many Hillsborough County Aviation Authority officials have traveled in comfort, flying first class and eating expensive meals. They considered it a perk of their job.

Authority board members serve without pay, so the first-class trips were viewed as a fringe benefit, a way the authority could say thank you for the hours that board members contribute to the agency.

Members were allowed to buy nice meals. Nobody questioned them if they billed the authority for a sightseeing tour or a round of drinks at the hotel bar.

But last week, the perk got a price tag.

Florida Comptroller Gerald Lewis said authority members were breaking the law with first-class trips. He called for a complete audit and said board members would have to personally pay any travel expenses not allowed by the rigid state policy.

The announcement caught authority officials by surprise and resurrected a running debate about travel rules. The Hillsborough officials contend they are not subject to the state's travel policy. Lewis says they are.

As authority officials scrambled to decide how to respond, they kept asking about fairness. For three decades, they have flown first class and assumed they were following the law. Now they are being told they owe thousands of dollars.

"I don't think (paying back the money) would be equitable," said Stewart Eggert, the authority's attorney. Board members "had every reason to believe" they were complying with the rules, he said.

Former authority board member Jim Selvey, who was singled out because of a sightseeing trip in Maui, said he was "following the policy that was in place at the time I was there."

Friday, the comptroller's office seemed willing to consider a compromise. Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Lewis, was asked whether it would be unfair to charge authority members thousands of dollars for trips they thought were proper.

"We will certainly attempt to be as reasonable as we can," McElroy said. "It's not our intent to impoverish anyone."

The dispute centers on one sentence in the law that created the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, the agency that operates Tampa International and the county's three other airports. The sentence says the authority's director, attorney and board members can be reimbursed for their travel expenses.

Simple, right?

Nope. Eggert takes a broad view of that sentence. He says it exempts the authority from the state's travel policy.

The state policy calls for the cheapest airline tickets and includes guidelines for meals and hotels. Travelers can get $50 per diem or get $3 for breakfast, $6 for lunch and $12 for dinner.

To back up his interpretation, Eggert cites a 1964 letter from then-Attorney General James W. Kynes that appears to side with the authority.

But Lewis' staff disagreed. They said the sentence doesn't carry any weight. They contend the authority must comply with the state travel policy because there is no special exemption in state law.

And the comptroller's lawyers cite a different attorney general's opinion: a 1979 opinion for the Lake Worth Utilities Authority that found the agency must follow state rules. The laws setting up the Lake Worth authority were quite similar to the ones that created the Hillsborough agency.

"This is not a moral issue," said McElroy of the comptroller's office. "We're not accusing anybody of any willful violation of anything. We're simply saying our interpretation is that you guys have been spending money that was not yours."

The authority already has changed its travel policy.

After stories about the first-class trips were published in The Times, the authority adopted rules that call for coach flights on all domestic trips. The Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would further clarify the dispute by forcing the authority to comply with the state policy.

The comptroller often has sought reimbursement from public officials who allegedly break state rules. James Spencer, a former lottery official who quit after allegations that he traveled too often for personal reasons, reimbursed the state more than $1,000.

The Hillsborough bills could be pricey.

Typically, board members take one or two trips a year. For some overseas trips, a first-class ticket costs thousands more than the cheapest coach fare. Chairman Arthenia Joyner could owe $7,000 for just one trip to India.

And the bills won't go only to board members. They'll also go to Eggert and George Bean, the authority's executive director, who both have flown first-class on most trips.

Bean's bill could be especially high because he flies so often to meetings of the Airports Council International and other aviation groups.

The amount of the bills will depend on how picky the comptroller's office will be. Will it object to every meal where someone spent more than $3 for breakfast? Or will it object only to first-class air fares? The office wasn't saying last week.

Auditing the travel records will be difficult because until recently the authority had no guidelines for travel expenses. Board members often have submitted bills for $100 breakfasts or dinners without indicating whether the bill was for one person or several people.

It's not clear how many years back the audit should go.

The statute of limitations goes back only four years, but McElroy said the comptroller's office is hoping the authority will provide "some historical perspective" farther back in time.

For now, authority officials are not sure how they will respond to the comptroller's request. They could seek some kind of face-saving compromise, agreeing to an audit but striking a deal so board members don't have to pay thousands of dollars from their own pockets.

Or, they could stand their ground and fight.

They have said all along that they are not covered by the state policy.

"I don't think I owe them anything," Eggert said. "I feel everything I did was in accordance with the law."