tampabay.com

Crist: Inaugural plan was mistake

The governor-elect cancels plans for a lavish party that would have had donors pay as much as $500,000 each to foot the bill.

By LUCY MORGAN AND STEVE BOUSQUET
Published December 10, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Amid mounting criticism from the public and media, Gov.-elect Charlie Crist on Saturday abruptly canceled plans for a pricey inaugural ball, saying he should not have approved the solicitation of donations of as much as $500,000 to pay for events.

"I made a mistake, and, yes, it was a doozy," Crist said.

Instead of capping his Jan. 2 inauguration with a four-hour celebration at a civic center in Tallahassee, Crist said, he will go ahead with a more modest prayer breakfast and open house at the Governor's Mansion.

"Upon reflection, it doesn't feel right to me when there are people having trouble paying their insurance bills and making ends meet," Crist told the St. Petersburg Times. "When I was a child, my grandfather told me every pencil has an eraser for a reason. It's a good lesson. I'm not perfect."

Crist's sudden reversal came on a day when the Times and several other newspapers in Florida carried columns, editorials and cartoons critical of the party plans.

A Tampa Tribune editorial Saturday said "Crist's solicitations don't set the right tone for the new day he has promised in Tallahassee."

In an editorial headlined "The lobbyists' governor," the Palm Beach Post said the $500,000 solicitations mean that Crist's nickname, "Chain Gang Charlie," should be changed to "Ka-Ching Charlie."

In the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, cartoonist Ed Gamble's cartoon Saturday showed a cigar-chomping lobbyist telling two average-looking guests at the ball: "You don't have to worry about the $2.5-million cost! We covered it!"

Crist is shown smiling as he talked to a lobbyist, with dollar bills strewn on the floor.

At the same time, Florida voters continued to criticize Crist over the party.

"They wonder why the public holds politicians in such low esteem," Dick Jacoby of Largo wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "The audacity."

The criticism suggested the media savvy Crist had miscalculated and misread the public mood at a time of frustration over soaring insurance premiums and property taxes.

Canceling the ball is a way for Crist to be seen as once again having listened to the people.

Republican donors were asked to raise or contribute $50,000, $100,000 or $500,000 to gain tickets, photo ops with Crist, engraved cuff links, a tote bag and silk tie commemorating the event, and preferred seating at a prayer breakfast at Florida A&M University.

A three-page list of donation proposals sent to lobbyists, Republican donors and Crist supporters offered the title of "vice chairman" to donors who raise or contribute $500,000.

The inaugural committee is co-chaired by two of Crist's leading campaign fundraisers: Brent Sembler, a St. Petersburg real estate executive, and Brian Ballard, a lawyer and lobbyist in Tallahassee.

Their goal was to raise $2.5-million in a matter of weeks immediately following an expensive political campaign.

The committee's executive director, Meredith O'Rourke, was the chief fundraiser for Crist's campaign, which shattered records by collecting $19-million.

Crist initially defended the requests for six-figure checks in an interview on Tuesday.

"The process of putting on a celebration like that is unfortunately, not cheap," Crist said.

He said a donor who wrote a $500,000 check would not get any special treatment.

"You might have a nice seat, but no extra consideration," Crist said Tuesday.

Crist said he will send back the large contributions already made, and limit contributions to something in the range of those collected by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush set a $5,000 limit for his first inaugural in 1999, and upped it to $10,000 for his second one four years later.

The governor-elect said he will use the money to defray any expenses for other inaugural activities, but said he doesn't know yet what the total cost will be.

All excess funds will be distributed to the Derrick Brooks Charities, the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The first nine donations posted Friday on Crist's campaign Web site, www.charliecrist.com, totaled $275,000.

The largest single contribution was $100,000 from Trigeant Air, a Boca Raton aviation company owned by Harry Sergeant, a businessman who was a fraternity brother of Crist's at Florida State University.

Other donations included $50,000 each from U.S. Sugar and the GEO Group, a private prison company.

The committee also received $25,000 each from A. Duda & Sons, an agriculture company, and Colodny, Fass, Talenfeld, Karlinsky & Abate, a law firm in Fort Lauderdale with insurance industry clients.

The inaugural committee received $10,000 each from the Associated Builders & Contractors of Florida and the law firm of Bryant, Miller & Olive. The Florida Farm Bureau gave $5,000.