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Legislators' perks may push limit of law

Critics say tickets and trips funneled through political parties sidestep disclosure requirements.

By Associated Press
Published May 31, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Florida legislators have been enjoying trips, skyboxes at prime sporting events and a host of other freebies - all without having to declare them as gifts.

House leaders attended the Belmont Stakes last year, their free tickets arranged by a Florida track pushing a video gambling bill. Senate President Jim King attended the Sugar Bowl in a skybox provided by a lobbyist. Democrats are golfing free at Disney.

All just a sample of the undeclared perks, according to a report by Gannett Regional Newspapers in Florida.

And it's all legal. Rather than give the trips to legislators, lobbyists funnel them through Florida's two major political parties. The parties invite lawmakers to attend events for free, then sell access to those legislators back to business interests to raise money.

House and Senate leaders in both parties say the profit goes into "leadership funds" to help win key legislative seats. King, R-Jacksonville, and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, were able to use the money raised last summer to reward their supporters or punish foes by withholding party funds in the fall elections.

Even though Florida campaign finance records show millions of dollars in checks written out to such entities as "Senate Victory 2002," party officials say the funds technically don't exist.

The money is put into the general funds of the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Democratic Party and can be spent however the party wants.

"You wouldn't know I raised $8-million," agreed King, a frequent skybox guest at Florida State University football games, where lobbyists pay thousands of dollars to sit next to him.

Common Cause director Ben Wilcox said the practice "pushes the boundaries of the law. I don't know that it is legal. They are playing fast and loose with disclosure requirements."

Political parties refused to elaborate on the gift trips.

"I really don't get into the details of how we raise money," said Towson Fraser, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida. "We report every contribution we get, every expense we make."

[Last modified May 31, 2003, 07:48:43]

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