Auditors: Top politicians using state planes to commute, should reimburse taxpayers

(SUN SENTINAL)   State auditors found that several top Florida officials used government planes to commute to Tallahassee and should repay taxpayers, according to a draft of an inspector general memorandum.

But the auditors’ findings were not included in the final March 3 memorandum to Department of Management Services Secretary Linda South.

Instead, Inspector General Steve Rumph wrote that the review only looked at the billing procedures for the state’s air fleet. The conclusion: the “billing systems are functioning as designed.”

Asked why the auditors’ concerns about officials commuting on state planes were not included in the final memorandum, DMS spokeswoman Cathy Schroeder said: “We know that’s not what happened … there isn’t commuting on the state aircraft.”

“We trust the elected officials that serve the citizens of the state of Florida,” Schroeder said. “When they say they’re traveling for official state business, that’s why they’re traveling.”

The Sun Sentinel reported in February that Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp took 365 flights on state planes during his first two years in office, at a cost of more than $400,000. Two-thirds of the trips were to get him and his staff to and from Fort Myers, where he and his wife have a home. The lieutenant governor’s job is based in Tallahassee, but he schedules many events in the Fort Myers area, sometimes spending whole weeks there.

As a result of the Sun Sentinelstories, Kottkamp repaid the state more than $10,000 for flights his wife and toddler took on state planes, and his brother-in-law reimbursed $189 for a 2007 flight to watch a shuttle launch. All said they were not billed for the flights when they traveled.

South asked Rumph to review the Bureau of Aircraft Operations’ billing procedures to ensure that the bureau was properly charging officials and their agencies.

During the review, a team of auditors wrote that it came to their attention that several top Florida officials were using state planes to commute to Tallahassee.

“Although trip logs and invoices listed the travel as ‘official state business’ the frequency and timing of the travel indicated otherwise,” the Feb. 24 draft states. ” … this issue needs to be resolved expeditiously,” the auditors advised.

Florida now has two planes, at a cost of $2.7 million a year, to whisk top officials around the state. By law, they can only be used for “official state business.”

The auditors did not identify the officials they suspected were using state planes to commute.

Besides Kottkamp, Gov. Charlie Cristfrequently uses state planes, as does Agriculture CommissionerCharles H. Bronson, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, state records show.

Bronson has a weekend home about 45 minutes from Tallahassee but does not use the state plane to get there, his spokesman said.

McCollum has a home in Longwood, north of Orlando. “He has never used the state plane to commute between home and work and is not reimbursed for driving his Honda Accord back and forth,” said his spokeswoman Sandi Copes.

Sink has a home in Thonotosassa, near Tampa. Flight logs show that since January, Sink took 15 trips that started or ended in Tampa.

Kyra Jennings, Sink’s spokeswoman, said Sink holds occasional events and meetings in the Tampa area because it’s a large population center. “The CFO does not use the state planes for commuting,” Jennings said. “It’s used as intended: only for specific state business to make sure she can listen and talk to Floridians around the state.”

Crist took 22 trips since January that began or ended in his hometown of Tampa-St. Petersburg or in South Florida, where his wife has a Miami condominium, flight logs show. Crist often flies to those areas for bill signings, meetings or other official events.

On Thursday, Crist took the state jet to Miami. His schedule shows he had a 10 am. meeting Friday with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, followed by a visit to Kaplan University, and then a meeting with Fort Lauderdale‘s mayor. In the evening he was scheduled to attend a National Hellenic Society reception at Donald Trump‘s Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

The governor said he does not use the state plane to commute to and from Tallahassee.

“I use it to do state business,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that he does stay the weekend at times in South Florida or St. Petersburg after traveling on the state plane to an event there. “Define commuting?” he said.

Asked if Kottkamp uses the state plane to commute, Crist said: “Not that I’m aware of.”

The auditors wrote in the draft memorandum that there may have been some confusion after a 2005 law change that stripped the word “aircraft” from language prohibiting state vehicles from being used for commuting.

The change likely was made to enable the speaker of the House and Senate president to use state planes to travel between their districts and Tallahassee, the auditors wrote.

But the change did not override another section of law that does not include commuting in the definition of “official state business,” they concluded.

The auditors recommended in the draft that state officials “repay all costs of the use of state aircraft for commuting between their homes and Tallahassee.” No estimate of those costs was given. The state has not sought any reimbursement.

If the state allows commuting on its aircraft, the flights could be considered a “fringe benefit” and state officials would have to pay federal income tax on the cost of the trips, the auditors warned.

The draft suggests that the Department of Management Services, which oversees the air fleet, ask the department’s general counsel to review the issue and ask the state attorney general for an opinion on whether state planes can be used for commuting.

Schroeder, the DMS spokeswoman, said the agency did not ask for a review or opinion and did not ask the inspector general to look into the commuting issue. “That’s never been questioned,” she said. “It’s not legal. We’ve never been asked to investigate that. We trust that people use the state aircraft for the right purpose.”

Florida’s Commission on Ethics is investigating Kottkamp’s use of state planes. He has retained retired state Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding to represent him. “This matter is under consideration and I don’t have any further comment than that,” Harding said Friday.

Schroeder said the Inspector General’s Office did not pursue the commuting issue because it did not want to infringe on the ethics investigation. “If the IG or any member of his team suspects something illegal, they report it or investigate it,” she said. “Again, there is nothing that points to commuting by any of our fliers.”

Megan O’Matz can be reached at momatz@sunsentinel.com or (954) 356-4518.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/broward/sfl-kottkamp-planes-commuting-052209,0,354299.story?page=1

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