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    Once critical of free flights, Crist now explains own trip

    The education commissioner, who had criticized Gov. Lawton Chiles' frequent jaunts, at first didn't list the trip. Now he will.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 6, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- As a state senator, Charlie Crist raised questions about free airplane trips taken a few years ago by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

    "This whole thing smells," Crist said when he learned that Chiles frequently accepted free airplane rides to football games and turkey hunts, and to visit friends.

    On Wednesday, Crist, now the state's education commissioner and a Republican candidate for attorney general, had to explain some travel of his own.

    On Jan. 23, Crist says he asked for a free jet airplane trip from GOP fundraiser Al Hoffman of Bonita Springs so he could get from a Cabinet meeting in Tallahassee to an education meeting in Washington. Crist did not report the trip on his state gift disclosure form.

    "I was going to Washington on state business at the invitation of the White House," Crist said. "I presumed it was a gift to the state."

    Crist said he called Hoffman to request a ride when he realized that slower-moving state airplanes could not get him to Washington on time if he attended the entire Cabinet meeting. He said Hoffman was already making the trip to the nation's capital that day and merely stopped to pick him up in Tallahassee. Hoffman is the chief executive officer of Watermark Communities Inc. and served as state finance chairman for President George W. Bush last year and for Gov. Jeb Bush's 1998 campaign for governor.

    A news release Crist issued at the time said he planned to attend a news conference in the White House Rose Garden with the president, business leaders and education officials.

    When someone questioned the trip recently, Crist said he called officials at the state Ethics Commission and was advised that he should consider the ride a gift and report it.

    Crist will file an amended report that will declare the one-way ride as a $520 gift from Hoffman.

    Crist said the January conference was the first of three he has attended in Washington on behalf of the state.

    "I had no reason to hide it," Crist said. "I thought I was saving money for the taxpayers."

    Crist said he returned on a commercial airplane and was reimbursed by the state for the expense.

    Although he did use other private jets during his campaign last year, Crist said he reimbursed the owners with campaign funds. The trip with Hoffman was the only one of its kind, he said. In late 1997, then-Gov. Chiles coughed up more than $7,000 to pay for private airplane trips he had taken from businesses and lawyers. The trips surfaced during an investigation into allegations that Harold Lewis, who was the governor's inspector general, had taken gifts and loans from the lawyers hired by the state to file lawsuits against tobacco companies.

    At the time, Crist compared Chiles' belated payments for the trips to the actions of a shoplifter caught in a store's parking lot who offers to pay for stolen merchandise. An Ethics Commission investigation was under way when Chiles died in late 1998.

    Crist's admission comes just a week after he acknowledged flunking the Florida Bar exam two times before passing and gaining his license to practice law.

    "It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but I think the lesson is to never give up," Crist said of the Bar exam.

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    From the Times state desk