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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Let’s Get to Work – On the Facts

Let’s Get to Work, a political committee largely financed by Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott’s wife, is at it again — falsely claiming that Attorney General Bill McCollum used a “chartered airplane” to commute to work and charged taxpayers $280,000. McCollum has access to a state plane, but it’s not true that he uses it to commute. And the amount of money he spent on air travel — all of it involving state business — is exaggerated.

Breezy with the Truth

We have written about this group before, and it continues to serve as a big-spending surrogate for Scott in his race against McCollum for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. The primary is Aug. 24.

“Frequent Flyer,” a TV ad that first aired July 14, opens with footage of drivers stuck in congestion and asks, “How’s traffic on your drive home? For Bill McCollum, traffic is a breeze.” It says, “McCollum billed taxpayers $280,000 for air travel,” citing an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel. That’s an exaggeration. The Sentinel‘s editorial was based on a joint story by the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times on air travel by Florida Cabinet officials from January 2007 to June 22, 2009. The story says the $280,000 is for McCollum’s entire office, not just for his flights. The story also says that McCollum’s office spent the least of Florida’s four Cabinet offices.

Our review of the Florida Department of Management Services’ aircraft flight logs shows that McCollum charged the state a total of $149,411.68 for his individual travel in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In all, the attorney general’s office – including McCollum and other employees — charged the state $276,616.09 during that time.

More Exaggerations

The ad goes on to say that some of McCollum’s flights were “even for personal reasons.” Let’s Get to Work coordinator John French referred our request for information to the Scott campaign. The campaign pointed to a Sarasota Herald Tribune column to support that claim. The article says “McCollum leads with more than $77,000 in personal travel on the state plane” in fiscal year 2009. The wording has led to confusion because the article used "personal travel" as a synonym for individual travel for official business. The article compared McCollum’s individual flights with those of the governor and the chief financial officer.

So, how many times did McCollum use the plane for “personal reasons"? The ad says 53 times. But that, too, is an exaggeration. The ad cites the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times investigation. The paper was referring to any time that McCollum flew in or out of the airport in Sanford, Fla., which is near his home in Longwood, Fla. However, the Florida Commission on Ethics released a report that shows all of McCollum’s trips from Jan. 12, 2007, to May 14, 2009, involved legitimate state business, although nine flights “were routed in a manner that did not have an apparent public purpose.”

Florida Commission on Ethics, Press Release: The Commission’s investigation revealed that in all instances where McCollum flew on state aircraft from Tallahassee to Sanford or Orlando, his calendar reflects a clear public purpose associated with the flight. There was no occasion found by ethics investigators where McCollum traveled only to his home on state aircraft and the plane flew back to Tallahassee empty or vice versa. … However, there were nine instances where flights were routed in a manner that did not have an apparent public purpose. For those flights, public business was conducted at another location prior to or after the stop in Sanford or Orlando.

These diversions could have cost the state an additional $712.87 per flight on average, according to figures provided by Mike McClure of the Bureau of Aircraft Operations and published in the Report of Investigation. That adds up to less than $6,500 – far less outrageous than $280,000.

Misusing the Facts

The bipartisan ethics commission announced in a Dec. 9, 2009, press release that it "unanimously cleared [McCollum] of allegations that he misused the state aircraft for his personal purposes rather than for official state business by diverting planes to pick him up or drop him off near his home in Sanford, Florida and that he used the planes to fly to personal destinations unrelated to state business."

Still, the Let’s Get to Work ad says a state auditor found McCollum’s "personal reasons" for using the aircraft were "likely a ‘misuse of state resources.’ ” The ad cites a Miami Herald article. But the paper also mentioned that the final report never reached that conclusion — a fact left out of the ad.

Miami Herald, June 30, 2009: "The use of the state aircraft to transport the Governor, Attorney General, CFO and Commissioner of Agriculture between the seat of government and a residence located outside of Tallahassee would appear to be a misuse of state resources,’’ auditor Sandra Lipner wrote March 4, although those findings were not included in the final report.

— by Michael Morse