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Home's sweet for Crist, not for landlord

"The public has a right to know about the financial dealings of the candidates seeking Florida's highest office."

Those words are on Charlie Crist's campaign Web site, www.charliecrist.com. The attorney general and Republican candidate for governor says that by way of introduction to an online release of his five most recent federal income tax returns.

It isn't only H&R Block that finds this stuff interesting.

Tax returns provided some of the information that allowed us to report Friday that Crist rents a high-rise Bayfront Tower condominium in St. Petersburg from a man who has taken the $25,000 tax break on the condo for three years, even though he doesn't live there.

That's illegal for Crist's landlord, Lawrence Compton, who is in big trouble with the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office.

Crist's tax returns give his legal address. A separate financial disclosure form, filed with the state, lists assets and liabilities, such as houses and cars owned, mortgages and loans.

The condo is not listed as an asset. That's because Crist doesn't own it. He rents it.

Who does own it? We wondered. A quick visit to the Pinellas property appraiser's Web site (pao.co.pinellas.fl.us) yielded the answer, as well as the minor revelation that Compton has been taking the homestead exemption, which gives him a break on property tax increases under the Save Our Homes amendment.

The condo has a market value of $296,900, but its assessed value is $235,000. With the homestead exemption, it is taxed at a value of $210,000.

Crist didn't know Compton has been taking the homestead exemption since 2003.

Crist also said he didn't know it was wrong to do that (it's called "rental of homestead to constitute abandonment," Florida Statute 196.061).

Is any of this relevant to the question of whether Crist is qualified to be governor of the nation's fourth largest state?

That's for you, the voter, to decide.

Some of you think it matters. Those of you who weighed in Friday with e-mails wondered why Crist didn't have a better working knowledge of the homestead exemption law, or asked why his rent was so low ($1,265 a month, a detail Crist provided voluntarily).

With Crist currently the state's chief legal officer, and with Florida facing a critical shortage of affordable housing, some people may find those details of interest. Some others won't. That's for you to decide.

Property Appraiser Jim Smith said Crist has done nothing wrong. But Compton will get a certified letter with news of a $4,096 fine and the news that he has already forfeited his homestead exemption for next year. He also has lost the Save Our Homes tax cap, so his tax bill will rise dramatically next year.

It's true that Smith is the honorary chairman of the Pinellas campaign of Crist's opponent, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. Smith said Gallagher phoned him Friday and the two men had a good laugh. But Smith didn't leak this story. We alerted him.

In an anything-goes race for governor, Crist's opponents surely will find some way to make this seem like a scandal, especially in light of the fact that Compton has given Crist a $500 campaign contribution.

In his weekly "Notes from the Trail" online newsletter Friday, Gallagher wrote: "I know the importance, the benefit and the challenges of owning a home . . . The more Floridians who own their own property, the more Floridians we have with a vital stake in the future of our state and nation."

Crist said he tried to buy his condo three years ago but couldn't get a good deal. "I'm sure it will happen at some point," he said.

Maybe not. If Crist wins the race for governor, he won't have to worry about paying rent for the next four years. He'll live rent-free in the Governor's Mansion.

Steve Bousquet is Tallahassee bureau chief of the Times.

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