Even after the gift ban and reform, freebies flow to Florida lawmakers

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, in the Florida Senate.
State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, in the Florida Senate.
Published April 18, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — The chief advocate of a 2005 gift ban prohibiting Florida lawmakers from having meals, drinks and trips paid by special interests now has meals, drinks and trips indirectly paid by special interests.

Sen. Tom Lee, who vowed that his ban would change the behavior of legislators, has received more in personal reimbursements from his political committee than any other state senator since 2013.

The Brandon Republican's committee, called The Conservative, raised $1.8 million over the past two years from corporate interests such as Anheuser-Busch, U.S. Sugar, Duke Energy and Walt Disney. Exploiting a loophole, The Conservative paid Lee $15,511 in a series of reimbursements during the same period, according to state Division of Elections records.

Lee is just one example of how powerful lawmakers in both parties still get special interests to cover personal expenses — even after the gift ban and a subsequent reform in 2013.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, was personally reimbursed more than $9,000 the past two years by his PAC, Florida's Future. But tally up all reimbursements by his staff, including his committee treasurer, and total reimbursements jumped to $42,674, nearly three times more than any other legislator.

The committees set up by Smith, Lee and others are legally allowed to reimburse their host lawmakers for expenses — as long as they can show it's related to the political mission of their committees.

But a Times/Herald review of 84 committees operated by 75 state legislators shows that a handful of politicians routinely used their committees for reimbursements that could not easily be explained:

• The PAC run by Smith provided scant records of the purpose for reimbursed expenses and even the names of individuals who were paid. Responding to requests from the Times/Herald, it took the treasurer nearly two months to disclose that $9,173 of the committee's reimbursements went to cover bills for Smith, including stays at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., and dinners at Capital Grille in Orlando and Ruth's Chris Steak House in Washington.

• Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala's Florida Leadership Committee paid him $14,379 in reimbursements to cover costs including restaurant tabs at Bascom's Chop House in Clearwater ($388), Georgio's in Tallahassee ($742) and Morton's Steakhouse in West Palm Beach ($350).

• The PACs for Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, spent the most in the House on personal reimbursements. Fresen's PAC charged $12,792 on a Discover Card primarily for pricey meals; Hudson's PAC paid him $10,270 to cover expenses at gas stations, pizza parlors, steak houses and private clubs like the Governors Club in Tallahassee.

• In addition to reimbursements, the committees of lawmakers regularly accepted in-kind contributions in the form of event tickets, meals, drinks and travel expenses paid by corporations and lobbyists. Walt Disney, for example, treated the PAC of Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to $991.95 in December for food and beverage. The theme park giant likewise covered $1,000 in expenses in February for the PAC of Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to hold a fundraiser at a Luke Bryan concert in Orlando's Amway Center.

Lawmakers defended the compensation they have received from their committees, saying it is a necessary cost of doing business.

"These aren't things that I go do because I think they're going to be fun," said Lee of his expenses. "They are things that I go do because in order to achieve the fundraising goals that we have, you have to engage in some of these activities."

But because of the broad nature of the committees, it's difficult to distinguish between campaign and personal expenses, said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan political watchdog.

"Nothing has changed," Wilcox said. "These committees are just a way to get around the gift ban."

The 2005 ban made it illegal for a state legislator to accept gifts — such as meals, football tickets, hunting trips or booze — from a lobbyist. It was passed under House Speaker Allan Bense and Lee, who was Senate president.

Yet the ban left intact the ability for lawmakers to accept gifts indirectly via reimbursements or in-kind contributions from political parties and their own committees — as long as it related to an activity that advanced the missions of the parties and committees.

Consequently, lawmakers could still soak up the perks.

That loophole led to an explosion of Committees of Continuous Existence. They could raise unlimited funds, write checks to other candidates and finance personal entertainment, travel, meals and other personal expenses.

The committees became notorious for lawmakers dipping into them with little oversight. By 2012, abuses of CCEs became so widely reported that incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz vowed a crackdown.

During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers passed another ban, this time on CCEs. As in 2005, the ban's proponents touted it as a major breakthrough.

"With more transparency and accountability, candidates running for office in Florida will now be held to a higher standard," Weatherford said when Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law.

Yet the legislation left the same loophole for political parties and shifted the power to collect contributions of unlimited amounts from the now-defunct CCEs to political action committees. Lawmakers were allowed to dump their CCE money into their new PACs and carry on pretty much as before.

Lawmakers did so, en masse. So Lee's The Conservative CCE closed on Sept. 10, 2013, and became The Conservative PAC on the same day.

Lee had seemed an unlikely bet to exploit the loophole. He fretted in 2005 that "there are a lot of people out there, much to my chagrin and surprise who … are trying to figure out a way to circumvent the spirit of the law."

In defense of his spending since 2013, Lee said his expenses are signed off by a chairman and treasurer who verify they are "appropriate and legitimate." In addition, he said his receipts are a tiny fraction of what his committee raises.

"To me, that's extremely reasonable," said Lee, a home builder who reported an income of $147,000 last year.

Lawmakers earn $29,200 a year in salary, but they can pay for expenses with the additional $6,450 they receive to offset the cost of meals and lodging during the legislative session, as long as they back it up with documentation. When not in session, legislators provide travel documentation to get paid up to $80 per day for travel outside their district.

Lee, who is the Senate's appropriations chair, also has been reimbursed $7,808 since 2013 by the Republican Party of Florida for travel and meals.

The Conservative reimbursed Lee on top of what the state and RPOF paid him.

Lee said the expenses were incurred while he was supporting the mission of his committee, which is broadly stated as the promotion of "responsible government policies."

Many of his reimbursements were for mileage and stays at hotels, such as the Ritz-Carltons in Naples and Sarasota, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and The Lodge Pebble Beach in California for a fundraiser. Other reimbursements were for meals.

Records were murkier at Florida's Future, a political action committee operated by Smith, the Senate's former minority leader from Fort Lauderdale. Expense filings were not matched with individuals. Committee treasurer Roderick Harvey, a CPA, blamed the tax season for a two-month delay in responding to a media inquiry to break down charges.

Even with Harvey's clarifications, it's still not clear whose costs were covered for other expenses. A $108 dinner at Cypress, an upscale Tallahassee restaurant, is identified only as a "contribution solicitation meeting" without naming a recipient.

Smith said all expenses were related to the committee's voter outreach in Broward County and "not for a particular candidate."

Yet the PAC's registered purpose, which it is required to file with the secretary of state, is "supporting candidates who believe in creating a solid foundation for Florida's Future." Asked why the committee spent money in a way that had nothing to do with its registered purpose, Smith could provide no answers.

"I honestly don't know," Smith said. "I need to check that out."

Smith's committee has been flagged for its disorganization. It was fined $2,519 last year (and only paid $750) for filing late or incomplete reports. In clarifying the committee's expenses, Harvey identified errors, such as a $663 charge at a Charlotte, N.C., Sheraton and a $293 Delta Air flight.

Smith seemed uncertain about his own costs. Last week, he told the Times/Herald that a $388.44 stay at a Washington, D.C., Ritz-Carlton on Dec. 16 was an expense incurred by Harvey, not him. But on Thursday, Harvey sent the Times/Herald a document that indicated Smith stayed there as well on that date.

Smith drew a blank when asked about a $142.70 June 2014 dinner at a Ruth's Chris Steak House in Washington.

"We were meeting some groups out there," Smith said. "We talked about progressive issues."

Pressed for which groups he met and what issues were discussed, Smith said he didn't recall.

Since 2013, Latvala's PAC, the Florida Leadership Committee, has reimbursed him $14,379, the second-highest reported total in the Senate.

According to the committee's itemized expenses, Latvala was reimbursed $7,286 by his committee since November 2013 for more than 30 meals at what reads like a Zagat guide to Florida restaurants: in addition to Bascom's, Georgio's and Morton's, the list includes Renato's in Palm Beach, The Raintree in St. Augustine, the Yard House in Boca Raton, Caffe Abbracci in Coral Gables, Bistro Mezzaluna in Fort Lauderdale, the Capital Grille in Tampa and Ruth's Chris Steak House in Jacksonville.

Latvala said all of his committee's spending was legitimate.

"It's either for fundraising, candidate recruitment or political strategy," Latvala said. "You'll find that there are no racetracks, beaches or vacations."

Latvala said he resented questions about his committee's spending, calling them "borderline harassment" when he's faced with other matters in the final weeks of legislative session.

"To be fair, you should probably look at the percentage of funds used for this purpose based on total dollars raised by each committee," Latvala said. "I had one of the highest grossing committees during this period."

Latvala's committee raised more than most PACs: $3.3 million from about 800 contributions via some of the largest special interests in Florida. As a percentage of what's raised, therefore, the reimbursements are insignificant, Lee and Latvala both say.

But most lawmakers don't use political committees that way.

Nine senators don't even have a committee, and 15 who do didn't tap them for reimbursements. No other senator had reimbursements approaching what Latvala, Lee and Smith collected from their committees. Few in the House did either, but Fresen and Hudson came closest.

Lawmakers can get freebies another way, via in-kind contributions their committees receive to cover meals, drinks and trips.

The PAC for the House's Rules Chairman, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, was given $6,895 worth of food, beverage and entertainment by Floridian Partners Inc. in February. Latvala's PAC received $6,576 from SSE Gaming LLC for "event tickets/catering" that he said was used for a fundraiser.

In the past year, lobbyist Guy Spearman treated lawmakers to the use of his Beechcraft King Air twin-turboprop aircraft. He gave these free trips in the form of in-kind contributions to their PACs. Workman's PAC accepted a $2,105 plane ride in February. Galvano took two trips worth $7,790. Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Lakeland, was treated to a $1,400 trip via her PAC. Latvala's PAC received six plane trips that Spearman estimated cost him $13,201.

"I'm friends with them," Spearman explained. "I have a standing offer, but they don't abuse it."

Spearman, who represents Anheuser-Busch, AT&T and SeaWorld among others, said the trips aren't gifts because they meet the requirements of current law.

"It's perfectly legitimate because it's fundraising related, or at least that's what they told me the trips are for," Spearman said. "I'm providing transportation. That's all I'm doing."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at Follow @mikevansickler.