Florida taxpayers pick up tab for politicians who visit the Sunshine State

Florida provides security to politicians who visit the Sunshine State — and taxpayers pick up the tab.

(MIAMI HERALD)   When they visit Florida, you pay.

In a little-noticed and long-standing tradition, the state of Florida provides security to dozens of politicians who visit the Sunshine State on business and personal trips, even though the visitors bring their own protection.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement spent almost $300,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30 to pay for salaries, transportation, lodging and other costs related to 96 appearances by U.S. senators, members of Congress, senior White House officials and 38 governors. Among the visitors were California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Gov. David Paterson, the first lady of Puerto Rico, the premier of Ontario and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

FDLE calls it part of a reciprocal agreement with other states to guarantee the safety of high-profile leaders, and the agency says Florida politicians receive the same level of security when they are on the road.

“Florida being a destination state, we generally get many more dignitary visits,” said FDLE spokeswoman Heather Smith.

So when the estranged wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford went to her parents’ gated home in Hobe Sound in late June to escape her philandering husband, Florida taxpayers picked up the $623 cost of Jenny Sanford’s security escort.

When Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri heads to his Stuart condo for some downtime, FDLE agents are waiting in their familiar dark-colored SUVs to guide him to and from the airport.

And when Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour spoke to a Florida road builders’ association at The Grand at Sandestin Resort near Destin in May, he got an FDLE escort to and from the local airport, at a cost of $561.

“My understanding is that it’s a gentlemen’s agreement,” said the governor’s spokesman, Dan Turner. “He flew in late that afternoon and he flew out that night.”

Visiting dignitaries’ security costs were considerably higher in 2008-09 than the previous year because Miami was the site of a four-day meeting last November of the Republican Governors Association, hosted by Gov. Charlie Crist. In addition to providing security to each visiting governor, FDLE spent $70,000 in security advances and protection details at a Miami hotel and other conference sites.

The law enforcement agency generally declined to provide details on the officials’ visits, citing a broad public records exemption for security matters. FDLE is required by law to file an annual report with the governor and Legislature on how much it costs to protect the governor, first lady, Governor’s Mansion and visiting leaders.

The security cost for visits varies widely. FDLE said it depends on the level requested by the visitor. Generally, security is provided for governors, national leaders, religious leaders and foreign leaders, but state law doesn’t specify who is eligible.

South Carolina Gov. Sanford, a native of Fort Lauderdale, visited Florida four times in the past year, more than any other dignitary, for a total cost of about $6,300. Sanford faces mounting calls for his resignation for his extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina.

All four Sanford trips were listed by FDLE as official. They included a four-day visit for the meeting of the Republican Governors Association and a three-day visit in March when Sanford spoke to a Club for Growth meeting in Boca Raton and stayed with friends Jim and Lisa Wheeler in West Palm Beach.

Carcieri visited three times in the past year for a total of four weeks, at a cost of $5,400.

One visit also was in conjunction with the Republican governors’ meeting, but a spokeswoman said Carcieri and his wife like to get away to his vacation condominium.

“It’s a professional courtesy. It’s usually just an escort to and from the airport,” said Carcieri’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe.

Kempe said it is routine for the Rhode Island State Police to similarly offer security escorts to visiting political leaders.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had FDLE protection three times, twice as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry received a security escort for a family friend’s wedding last summer and a January visit to watch the Oklahoma Sooners lose to the Florida Gators in the BCS Championship Game in Miami, spokesman Paul Sund said. The security cost for Henry’s two visits was $10,664, the priciest protection detail in the past year for an out-of-state politician.

Explaining why it would cost $10,000 to protect a governor at a football game and a wedding, FDLE’s Smith said: “When you provide protection in a public, highly populated venue, you have higher levels of security than is required in a restaurant, for example.”

Smith said the agency provides protection to visiting leaders at their request and has been doing so for decades, “as long as we have been providing protection to the governor,” she said.

FDLE said it cost $1.34 million for agents to provide security for Gov. Charlie Crist in the past fiscal year. First lady Carole Crist’s security expenses totaled $78,000, and it cost an additional $31,000 to protect the “first family,” which FDLE describes as Gov. and Mrs. Crist, or times when Mrs. Crist’s two daughters are in Florida


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