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Ethics panel finds nothing "corrupt' in state plane use

The Florida Commission on Ethics has dismissed complaints against Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, ruling that their use of state planes to travel home for the weekend did not violate state ethics laws.

Commissioners said the dozens of times King and Byrd took the state plane home or to a weekend retreat last year do not reach the level of "corrupt" behavior sufficient to justify an ethics investigation, in part because past Senate presidents have used state planes to go home, too.

State law prohibits the use of state-owned planes for commuting. But ethics commissioners noted that the law does not spell out precisely what commuting is, and they urged lawmakers to fine tune the language.

"We agree . . . that the statute should be clarified to describe more particularly when the use of the aircraft is appropriate," ethics commission chairman Richard Spears wrote last week.

"Lacking such clarification, and given the apparent history of aircraft usage consistent with the Respondent's, we cannot find that the Respondent corruptly used his official position to secure a special privilege or benefit for himself in violation of the Code of Ethics," Spears continued, referring to King.

Neither King nor Byrd returned calls seeking comment.

A St. Petersburg Times' analysis of state plane data last year showed that Byrd and King took numerous trips from the capital city to their home districts or, in King's case, his weekend house on the St. Johns River, which lies outside his district. Byrd was billed more than $5,000 for his trips through September and King, more than $8,000.

But lawmakers are billed just a fraction of what it costs to fly the state plane.

No commercial service is available to the Palatka airport, where King flies when he goes to his weekend home, and it would cost him about $4,000 were he to charter a plane instead of taking the state plane.

Other rank and file lawmakers also took the state plane home, even when commercial service was readily available. Most said they doubled up with other lawmakers headed in the same direction and that they flew home with King's blessing.

Both King and Byrd defended the practice last year, saying that their internal policies allowed lawmakers to take the state plane home even if the law was unclear.

And presiding officers, who spend many more hours in the Capitol than most other lawmakers, have historically used the state plane to go home for the weekend, including former Senate president John McKay.

It wasn't the first time the issue has come up. As a Republican state senator from St. Petersburg, Charlie Crist criticized Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles for using state planes for political purposes in the 1990s.

Crist requested an opinion from then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who concluded that state law "excludes the use of state vehicles or aircraft for personal business or commuting purposes."

State auditors also looked at flights Chiles and then-Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay took. After analyzing dozens of flights the two men made on state planes, auditors concluded that Chiles should reimburse taxpayers $1,145 for personal trips and MacKay should pay $664.88 for the costs of diverting a state plane that was headed elsewhere to pick him up in Ocala, where he kept a residence.

Ethics commissioners noted the reimbursements, but nonetheless said there was no evidence to suggest either King or Byrd showed any intent of abusing their position for personal gain in taking the state planes home.

Commissioners dismissed several complaints that had been filed by state residents.