$48,000 trip? GOP picks up tab

The party wants to avoid an ethics problem for four lawmakers. Senate President Tom Lee promises an inquiry.

Published October 14, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The Republican Party of Florida will pay a gambling company $48,000 in hopes of sparing four lawmakers a possible ethics problem after they took a two-day trip to Toronto at the company's expense.

The GOP said it will pay $48,000 to Magna Entertainment Corp., which chartered a jet from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on July 12 and whisked the four lawmakers to its company headquarters in Canada. Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who urged the party to act, promised an inquiry by Senate lawyers.

Two Pinellas lawmakers were on the trip: Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg. Both run key committees regulating Florida parimutuels. Others included Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, and lobbyists Marc Dunbar of Magna and John Culbreath of Magna's Gulfstream Park.

Magna is eager to install slot machines at Gulfstream, its thoroughbred track in Broward County. Voters approved the slots in a referendum in March, but lawmakers have not passed legislation to get the slots operating.

Magna wants to expand to night hours at Gulfstream and is interested in adding to its operations in horse-friendly Ocala.

The trip appeared on recently released campaign finance reports of the Republican Party of Florida, which listed the $48,000 as an "in-kind" contribution from Magna. In-kind donations typically refer to goods and services, such as food and travel for campaign events.

Listing the trip as an in-kind donation made it appear the party had arranged the trip, when it had not.

Lawmakers couldn't directly accept the trip because of a state law that limits gifts from lobbyists and their clients to $100.

"This should not have been reported as an in-kind contribution. The party will pay for the costs incurred," said Camille Anderson, a party spokeswoman. "It's unfortunate these members put the party in this situation."

It is not clear who decided to list the expense of the trip as if it had been part of an official party event, but amid strong criticism from Lee, the Republican Party agreed to pay Magna.

By paying Magna, the GOP puts itself in the awkward position of sending money to a gambling conglomerate at a time when key party leaders are supporting repeal of a constitutional amendment that legalized slot machines in Broward County.

The party's unusual payment might save the four lawmakers from an ethical embarrassment, but their problems are only beginning.

Lee said he would direct Senate lawyers to launch a "thorough inquiry" of how the trip came about.

"Is there any more evidence to support the need for reforming Florida's ethics laws than these kinds of situations?" Lee asked.

Lee said he found out about the trip Tuesday. He said he learned of an Aug. 11 letter from Dunbar, the Magna lobbyist who went on the trip, to state GOP chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan that itemized Magna's costs.

The trip was first disclosed in Wednesday's edition of the Miami Herald.

Magna spent $40,812 on travel, $4,153 on catering and $3,216 on lodging and entertainment, Dunbar's letter said.

"We are pleased to assist you in what we hope was a successful event raising money for the Republican Party of Florida and the Republican Senate Caucus," Dunbar wrote.

But Jones and Farkas said no fundraising occurred, and King said no fundraising was authorized. The group returned with a $10,000 donation to the party, King said, and a promise of $50,000 more.

"I looked at it as a trip worth taking and came back feeling we had accomplished something," King said.

During a frantic round of phone calls Thursday, Lee said, even Gov. Jeb Bush "became engaged" in the controversy.

Bush's office did not return calls seeking comment.

"I felt like I needed to have some dialogue with Carole Jean and the governor," Lee said. "There are going to be a lot of questions that have to be answered."

Jones, who chairs the Senate Regulated Industries Committee that directly regulates gambling interests, said he had a longstanding invitation to tour Magna's operations from company official Jim McAlpine.

Jones labeled the trip as a "show and tell" and said he came away impressed by Magna's commitment to expanding in Florida.

"They put their money where their mouth is. They create good jobs that pay well. They are a world-class operation," Jones said.

Farkas said he did not know the trip had not been arranged by the party.

"Shame on me, I guess, for not looking at it a little closer," Farkas said.

No fundraising took place, he said, and the trip was focused on Magna's operations, including its plants that make cars and car parts.

The trip was hardly a junket, King said. The group that toured Magna's plants saw models of its Florida expansion plans and dined at a race track with a casino, "but never gambled a dime."

King said Jones got the invitation from Magna and asked the others to go. Farkas said Jones invited him, "and I didn't ask any more questions after that."

Although it is illegal for legislators to take gifts worth more than $100 from lobbying entities, the Commission on Ethics has said lobbyists can make larger donations to political parties that benefit lawmakers, as long as the lobbyist does not "earmark" which legislators receive gifts.

It has become routine for lobbyists' clients to pay for outings at Disney World or trips to pro sporting events by coordinating them through the parties.

Lee's decision to investigate the trip puts the Republican Senate leader in the rare position of investigating members of his own party heading into an election year.

King said he told Lee he "would welcome that. We didn't do anything I haven't done in the past to raise money for the party."

King, who was Senate president before Lee, faces a re-election challenge from antiabortion activist Randall Terry, and Farkas is running for a Senate seat that straddles Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

He is in a hotly contested primary with Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater.

One option the legislators had was to pay their own way. The four Republicans who traveled to Canada at Magna's expense are among the wealthiest members of the Legislature.

According to financial disclosure statements filed in July, Bennett is worth $12-million, King $6-million, Farkas $3.6-million and Jones $3-million.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.