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Gov. Crist mum on private jet travel

TALLAHASSEE — Despite pledging to run the most open administration in Florida history, Gov. Charlie Crist will not fully disclose details of his political travel on private jets owned by special interests and wealthy Republican Party donors.

By law, he doesn’t have to. But Crist has raised expectations by stressing total transparency in government and by requiring staff members to abide by higher ethical standards than the law requires.

In his two years in office, Crist has flown to events on planes belonging to Harry Sargeant, a Boca Raton businessman whose contracts to send fuel to troops in Iraq have been questioned by Congress; Dick Mandt of Tampa, a former publisher of shopper newspapers; and Daytona Beach home builder Mori Hosseini, among others. All are Republican Party fundraisers.

Taxpayers did not pay for those excursions. The owner donated the flight’s cost to the party or the party reimbursed the plane’s owner.

“The reporting of that is all adhered to in accordance with the disclosure laws the party abides by,” Crist spokeswoman Erin Isaac said. “And when the governor travels for personal reasons, he personally pays for that travel.”

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Sunday that Crist has used private jets more than 100 times during the past two years. His office said Crist uses corporate jets to fly to political events, and flies commercial at his own expense on personal trips, such as to his condominium in St. Petersburg.

The governor’s office did not acquiesce to the newspaper’s request that Crist document how he paid for all his travel.

State law requires political parties to account for all expenditures including travel, but not to specify which flights are flown by which public official. So it’s impossible to see which corporate interests are flying Crist around the most or whether corporate executives are enjoying exclusive airborne access to Crist.

Travel records obtained by the Herald/Times show Crist has been careful as governor to avoid using state planes for political or personal gain. While that has increased his reliance on corporate planes to maintain a busy political schedule, it has saved taxpayers money, too.

A side-by-side comparison of Crist’s use of state planes in his first two years in office and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s last two years in office shows Crist used state planes less often.

In that period, Bush flew nearly 137,000 nautical miles on a state plane for a total of nearly 429 hours in the air or the equivalent of nearly 18 days. Crist flew 75,000 nautical miles on a state plane for a total of 241 hours, or 10 days, since he became governor two years ago, according to official state manifests.

The reason Crist hasn’t flown as much on the state plane is “out of an abundance of caution,” Isaac said. She said he flies at the Republican Party’s expense when any political work appears on his schedule.

A case in point is Monday, Feb. 11, 2008. Crist began his day in Miami and boarded home builder Hosseini’s plane for Tampa and the Florida State Fair annual luncheon. Then it was off to Sarasota on a state-owned plane to visit a Florida business, followed by a trip on another private plane to visit a school and go to a Republican candidate’s fund-raiser in Naples.

Three days later, Crist flew on Sargeant’s plane from Tallahassee to Miami for a 30-minute meeting with Ambassador to Ireland Michael Collins. The next day, Mandt’s plane flew Crist from Miami to Tampa to attend a bottling company’s grand opening and a United

Negro College Fund luncheon.

Those details appear on internal schedules maintained by the governor’s office, which Isaac said no longer include political events. She said it was decided internally that staff members had no need to see details of Crist’s political schedule.

Crist’s air travel has been scrutinized before.

As a candidate for attorney general in 2001, Crist was accused in an ethics complaint of taking state planes to fundraisers. The investigation fizzled because Crist, on his attorney’s advice, declined to answer questions or produce records to ethics investigator

Robert Malone, The Palm Beach Post reported. Earlier, as a state senator in the mid-1990s, Crist examined the travels of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who took 14 personal trips without reporting them as gifts and later paid for the flights.

“I think it smells from top to bottom,” Crist said in 1997. “It smacks of the good-ol’-boy politics of the past.”

Crist’s frequent jet-setting also clashes with his oft-stated commitment to running a ‘‘green,” eco-friendly administration. Executive jets leave behind a heavy carbon footprint while spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

By contrast, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger uses so-called “carbon offsets’’ to mitigate his burning of carbon when he flies. Schwarzenegger drives a Hummer that can run on hydrogen and biofuels. Crist uses a hybrid-fuel SUV, but as of last month had not started using carbon offsets for his flights.

Asked a few months ago how much he was doing to reduce greenhouse gases and other emissions, Crist said: “Probably not enough.” Asked what he personally does to reduce energy consumption, Crist said: “I’ll try to turn the lights out when I leave the room, and things like that.”