Audit: Top Florida officials spent $51K on plane commutes

In never-released findings, auditors concluded that top state officials spent thousands commuting to their homes or taking ‘unnecessary legs during business trips’ using state aircraft.

(MIAMI HERALD)   TALLAHASSEE — Top Florida officials misused state resources to travel between the capital and their homes, costing taxpayers at least $51,000 and raising potential IRS violations, according to state investigators’ findings that were removed from a final auditor’s report.

Tallahassee lawyer Jose Blas Lorenzo Jr. also filed an ethics complaint Monday accusing Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink of ”abusive, unauthorized use of state aircraft” following reports by the Herald/Times and other news organizations.

Sink, along with Attorney General Bill McCollum and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, spent $51,000 of taxpayer money from July 1, 2008, through Feb. 15, 2009, commuting to their homes or taking ”unnecessary legs during business trips,” according to the Department of Management Services’ March 3 audit.

Sink spent the most — $27,200 — while McCollum spent $12,600 and Kottkamp spent $9,900, according to auditors.

The findings were included in documents obtained by the Herald/Times Monday that are part of an internal audit of the state aircraft program, which the department began in February.

Auditor Sandra Lipner wrote on March 4 that any state officials who used the state plane to transport “between the seat of government and a residence located outside of Tallahassee would appear to be a misuse of state resources.”

That statement, and her findings relating to travel by Kottkamp, Sink and McCollum, were not included in the final report.

Kottkamp reimbursed the state $10,000 for his travels after news reports exposed the practice. Sink has ordered her staff to conduct an internal investigation into her use of the state plane.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday that he believes no additional reviews are necessary, adding, ‘from what I’ve seen, they’re using the taxpayers’ property for taxpayer purposes.”

McCollum said he is not doing any further internal investigation. He said he needs to use planes to get around the state because “Tallahassee is not the easiest place to fly into.”

And Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson spokesman Terry McElroy said auditors were mistaken if they included the agriculture commissioner on the list because, unlike the others, Bronson ”doesn’t have a residence outside of Tallahassee so he’s never commuted.” He does own a ranch in Madison County which he gets to by car.

In a draft of the final report, investigators raised the prospect of tax consequences, noting that if officials are misusing the aircraft, ”the travelers could be subject to federal income taxes on the costs paid for the aircraft flights” because the flights could be considered a ”fringe benefit” by the IRS.

The draft report recommended that the department seek an attorney general’s opinion as to whether the use of the aircraft was a violation of the state law that prohibits officials from using state resources to commute home.

But the attorney general’s opinion was never sought.

After a March 2 meeting with DMS Secretary Linda South, Inspector General Steve Rumph concluded that the state had neither the manpower nor the resources to verify whether the governor and Cabinet officials were telling the truth when they said the trips to their home towns were for official business, said Cathy Schroeder, DMS communications director.

The purpose of the inspector general’s probe was to determine if the state was correctly billing officials for their travel, which led to the investigation of whether top officials ”also use the aircraft for commuting,” she said.

She said a full examination would require ”field investigations and interviews,” and the department didn’t have the staff to do that.

Short of that, she said, ”we didn’t have the data to prove it is going on,” so the conclusions and recommendations were left out of the final report.

The Herald/Times reported last week that Sink has diverted the state plane to her hometown of Tampa at least 44 times and McCollum has diverted the plane to the Sanford airport — the airport closest to his Longwood home — 53 times, to bring him home in between business trips.

State law requires the governor, lieutenant governor, CFO, attorney general and commissioner of agriculture to ”reside at the seat of government and shall have an office at the capital” and it prohibits using state resources to commute to their capital office.

Lorenzo said he filed the complaint because he was particularly offended by Sink’s use of the plane when she brought her son with her on trips. Lorenzo is an employee with the Florida Department of Education and is a Crist appointee to the Second Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission. His complaint does not mention any travel by other state officials.

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