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Columba Bush paid a $4,100 fine and was briefly detained by Customs in Atlanta. [Times files]
Bush: Wife meant to hide shopping spree from me

Mrs. Bush was given two chances to declare the correct amount of tax owed on her Paris purchases.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 1999


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday that his wife misled U.S. Customs officials about $19,000 in new clothing and jewelry she brought into the country because she didn't want him to know how much she had spent on her five-day Paris shopping trip.

Forced to explain his wife's actions at the Atlanta airport Thursday, Bush said Monday that the episode had disrupted their family life. His wife, Bush said, feels "horrible about this."

"It was a difficult weekend at our house," Bush said.

On Friday, the Bushes disclosed that Columba Bush had paid a $4,100 fine and was briefly detained by Customs agents for failing to declare merchandise when she arrived at Hartsfield International Airport. With that, the low profile enjoyed by the governor's quiet wife ended. "Shop 'til you drop," read a headline Saturday in the Bush's new hometown paper, the Tallahassee Democrat.

In his first public remarks about the Customs fine, Bush on Monday declined to specify exactly what his wife had purchased, and he tried to guard her privacy.

"I love my wife more than life -- she is my comfort and I am very proud of her. . . . What she does with our money is our business -- she can deal with that with me," Bush told reporters before signing into law the education reform package that is the biggest achievement of his first year in office.

The U.S. Customs Service, meantime, disclosed that Mrs. Bush had been given two chances to truthfully identify the amount of federal duty she owed on her purchases.

On a mandatory declaration form handed out Thursday on her Delta flight from France to Atlanta, Mrs. Bush falsely stated she had purchased $500 worth of goods, according to the Bushes and a U.S. Customs service spokesman.

Customs agents then found some shopping receipts in her purse. But Mrs. Bush declined the opportunity to change her declaration, Customs spokesman Patrick Jones said.

After that, Customs agents searched her luggage and found the merchandise. At that point Mrs. Bush confessed to all of her purchases, telling agents she did not answer truthfully at first because she did not want her husband to know how much she had spent, according to Bush spokesman Cory Tilley.

Mrs. Bush's civil fine of $4,100 was three times the duty she owed. She returned home to Tallahassee Thursday evening -- with her purchases.

“I love my wife more than life — she is my comfort and I am very proud of her. . . . What she does with our money is our business -- she can deal with that with me.”
—JEB BUSH
Governor of Florida
Customs agents could have fined Mrs. Bush up to the full dollar amount of her purchases or confiscated the merchandise. But Jones, the Customs spokesman, said that would be a highly unusual step. Thousands of people each year fail to properly declare their purchases, Jones said.

"The way it is typically done is to use the three-times-the-loss-of-revenue formula," Jones said. "Get the (duty) revenue, get the penalty and get these folks on their way."

Mrs. Bush also will have to pay a 6 percent state "use tax," which is a tax on goods that are purchased out of state but used in Florida. The tax is due by July 20. Bush spokesman Cory Tilley said Mrs. Bush is aware of the state tax -- which would be $1,140 on $19,000 in merchandise -- and she plans to pay it

The Bushes are trying to put the episode behind them, but the political ramifications could linger. Already, the Florida Democratic Party is saying the incident shows that while Bush has cultivated a down-home image, he "ain't an everyday Floridian." As of 1997, the Bushes had a net worth of $2,356,000.

Bush himself conceded that the matter could be used against his brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Jeb Bush said a sense of voyeurism characterizes modern-day politics.

"Anything is possible in politics in 1999," Bush said. "There is no line anymore, as there should be, between private lives and public actions."

Mindy Tucker, a press spokeswoman for George W. Bush's presidential campaign, would not comment on the Customs incident.

"A lot of people in political campaigns talk about a lot of things," Tucker said. "He will be running a positive, issue-oriented campaign."

Bush said he promised Mrs. Bush during his gubernatorial campaign that she could take the trip as a reward "for the sacrifices my wife made." He said she went alone because "it was clear I couldn't be gone -- I had a lot of work."

Columba Bush, a notoriously shy woman, has kept a low profile during both her husband's campaigns. During the legislative session, she often sat quietly, impeccably dressed in Chanel suits, while her husband held forth at luncheons with lawmakers.

The Bushes issued a written apology disclosing the incident late Friday night.

"My wife is not a public person. She is uncomfortable with the limelight, which is why I love her," Bush said. "I don't want a political wife -- I want someone who when I get home I can have a normal life with."

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