Israel trip: Here’s how much private donors paid for DeSantis, Florida leaders to travel abroad

Private companies and donors covered about $316,000 in expenses on the trip for the governor and others.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press briefing on the last day of the Florida trade trip to Israel. [JEFFREY SCHWEERS | USA Today Network - Florida]
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press briefing on the last day of the Florida trade trip to Israel. [JEFFREY SCHWEERS | USA Today Network - Florida]
Published Jul. 12, 2019|Updated Jul. 15, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — More than a month after their plane touched back down in Tallahassee after returning from a trade mission in Israel, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office and the state’s business development arm provided more details about the funding of that trip and how private donors contributed.

A final price tag has emerged: private companies and donors covered about $311,000 in expenses on the trip through Enterprise Florida, a state agency that also collects private donations to attract business to the state.

Included in that figure is $74,413 worth of events and receptions in Israel, about $103,000 for ground transportation and security, $5,500 for a photographer and videographer to accompany the delegation and travel costs for DeSantis, one of his aides, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and the hotel costs for Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried.

A major piece of those private donations came from twelve trip “sponsors,” which includes well-known law and lobbying firms Gray Robinson and Greenberg Traurig, as well as the Florida Realtors association. Also on the list were individual donors such as Lothar and Carlyn Mayer and Duty Free Americas, the company of Simon and Jana Falic — all of whom are wealthy pro-Israel political donors from South Florida.

Others on the list provided by Enterprise Florida: MCNA Dental Plans, which contracts with the state to provide Medicaid-funded dentistry; Geeks and Nerds, a cybersecurity and software company; Israel Bonds, which sells Israel bonds in the United States; Tellus, a company that provides electronic healthcare to Medicaid recipients; and Visit Florida, the state’s tourism arm.

Dana Young, the president of Visit Florida, also attended the trip using private funds at about $5,300, a spokeswoman for her agency said, which is above the amount provided to Enterprise Florida.

Jamal Sowell, President of Enterprise Florida, told the Times/Herald that the sponsors of the trip contributed because they have a “focus on this global partnership with us and Israel” and some “want to do business over there, too.” Private funds were also raised through dues of Enterprise Florida’s board members.

But the heavy involvement of private industry in a trip for state officials is reminiscent of the criticisms long leveled against Enterprise Florida, which even some Republicans have said creates a too-cozy relationship between business and government which leads to “corporate welfare.” Former House Speaker and now-Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran once derided the business development agency as an “absolute cesspool.”

“I think arrangements like (the Israel trip) are ripe for conflicts of interest,” said Paula Dockery, a Republican and former state senator who’s written columns bashing the state’s business development arm. “I understand governors like to go to foreign countries for trade missions and that’s fine but they shouldn’t be taking money from industries in our state, even if it’s disguised as Enterprise Florida.”

During the trip, agreements were signed between Israeli and Floridian businesses as well as universities, which Sowell said will lead to increased foreign investment and research opportunities.

"Economic development around the state is something that is strategic and long-term," he said. "It's the strategic thought about the global relationship with Israel and also other countries, because we'll do other trips in the future."

Chris Spencer, DeSantis’ policy director, said Friday that measuring the success of the trip will become clearer in the months and years to come, with more investments to Florida’s space industry, collaboration between international researchers to tackle blue-green algae blooms and programming and study-abroad partnerships between Israeli and Floridian universities.

Meanwhile, the updated cost in taxpayer money was at least $150,000. That figure accounts for Enterprise Florida’s staff members, three of the governor’s office staffers, Cabinet staff members plus security provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and transportation for those officers, such as armored cars.

It also includes Space Florida president Frank DiBello’s travel costs at $11,200 and about $7,700 for Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein.

Still, that's not the grand total.

Other public officials who attended the trip, including Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, also used public funds, though his department has not yet provided total cost estimates.

Additionally, four state representatives were on the trip, at least one of whom, Rep. Joseph Geller, used public funds, while Rep. Chris Sprowls did not, according to House spokesman Fred Piccolo. Rep. Chip LaMarca said he used a combination of leftover campaign funds and personal money. It’s still unclear how Rep. Randy Fine financed his trip, as well as how much the members’ travel cost in total.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information about how a state representative paid for his portion of the trip.