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    Ethics complaint filed over Crist's free plane flight

    Education Commissioner Charlie Crist is accused of accepting a free trip.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 14, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Education Commissioner Charlie Crist may get a chance to explain his airplane trips to the state Ethics Commission.

    The commission was asked to investigate a trip to Washington that Crist accepted earlier this year and a series of campaign events that he staged to coincide with trips he was making on state business.

    Eugene Danaher, a retired General Motors executive who frequently files complaints with the Ethics Commission, filed the complaint Wednesday.

    Danaher accused Crist of soliciting and accepting a free trip to Washington on Jan. 23 from Republican fundraiser Al Hoffman of Bonita Springs.

    He alleged that Crist misused his public position when he made campaign appearances on trips made on state airplanes for education events.

    Crist, elected education commissioner a year ago, is now running for attorney general. The elected education post will no longer exist in January 2003, because it was among state Cabinet positions that were abolished by voters in 1998.

    Crist says he asked Hoffman for the ride on his private jet because he needed to be in Washington for an education conference on the same day he had to attend a Cabinet meeting in Tallahassee. He said slower state airplanes and commercial schedules would have forced him to miss the Washington meeting, which included a press conference with President Bush in the White House Rose Garden.

    When questions were raised about the trip, Crist initially said he would file a new disclosure form identifying the trip as a $520 gift from Hoffman. A day later, Crist said he discovered that Hoffman had already disclosed the trip as an "in kind" contribution to the Florida Republican Party.

    A few years ago, Crist made headlines criticizing then Gov. Lawton Chiles for accepting free airplane trips to go hunting and attend football games. He contends his trips were different because he was traveling on state education business and considers the plane flight a gift to the state.

    Danaher alleges that Crist's actions violate state laws that prohibit public officials from soliciting any gift or accepting a gift valued at more than $100 from a lobbyist or a principal in a firm that does business before the state Cabinet.

    Asked about the complaint Thursday, Crist said Danaher has a right to complain. But the education commissioner called the complaint "frivolous and factually inaccurate."

    - Staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk