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Senator says he can't pay fine

Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla says he is living on the $29,000 a year legislators make and cannot pay a $17,000 fine the Florida Ethics Commission wants to collect for his failure to comply with election laws.

Election Commission lawyers say Diaz de la Portilla's spending habits don't reflect his income. They spent Monday questioning the way he handles his finances.

Diaz de la Portilla says the commission has a vendetta against him because some of its members are lobbyists who have opposed him politically.

Using bank and credit card statements, the veteran Republican senator from Miami was depicted as a man who spends a lot of cash and travels to casinos in Biloxi and Las Vegas, where he spent $599 to rent "the Elvis Chapel" and marry his wife in September 2003.

Diaz de la Portilla spent almost five hours on a witness stand Monday, explaining cash transactions since 1999. He routinely pays his bills with cash or cashier's checks and money orders, he said.

Last summer he borrowed $25,000 from his wife to pay some debts, Diaz de la Portilla said. He loaned $15,000 of the money in cash to Julio Giullen, his legislative aide. He presented a copy of a promissory note Giullen signed pledging to repay the loan in two years. He will only pay interest if he fails to repay the money, Diaz de la Portilla said.

Although his name appears on the deed and mortgages for a new $795,000 house he and his wife bought in Tallahassee in May 2004, Diaz de la Portilla said he has put no money into it. His wife, Claudia, a lobbyist, used her own money for the house, he said.

Elections Commission lawyer Eric Lipman repeatedly pressed Diaz de la Portilla to explain cash deposits and withdrawals of several thousand dollars over the past four years. The senator said he would have to see deposit slips and other records to be sure where the money came from and how it was spent.

"This is a check for three times your monthly salary," Lipman noted. "Wouldn't it seem that you should know where it came from?"

Diaz de la Portilla insisted that his income and expenses can be explained and have been reported in annual financial disclosure documents. He could not explain his failure to report $14,000 from one source identified in disclosure documents and omitted from his federal tax return. "But I always pay my taxes," he said, noting that the same accountant handles both reports.

Later, Lipman asked Diaz de la Portilla how he could make it on his $29,000 annual salary with $48,000 in living expenses accumulated since 1999.

Before he was elected to the Senate and before he was named president pro tem, he had some good years, Diaz de la Portilla explained. The last three years he has been spending his time as a public servant and has had no time to make extra money. That's why he has a $61,000 American Express bill and another credit card bill that totals $25,000, he added.

Initially, Diaz de la Portilla was fined a record $311,000 by the commission. An appellate court tossed out all but 17 charges and chastised the commission for allowing a lobbyist who has opposed the senator to vote.

The case is now before Administrative Law Judge Jeff Clark to determine how much the senator should be fined. Election Commission lawyers say Diaz de la Portilla has failed to produce some financial records and have reserved the right to continue questioning him Feb. 14.