The chief advocate of a 2005 gift ban prohibiting Florida lawmakers from having meals, drinks and trips paid by special interests now has meals, drinks and trips indirectly paid by special interests.
Sen. Tom Lee, who vowed that his ban would change the behavior of legislators, has received more in personal reimbursements from his political committee than any other state senator since 2013.
The Brandon Republican's committee, called The Conservative, raised $1.8 million over the past two years from corporate interests such as Anheuser-Busch, U.S. Sugar, Duke Energy and Walt Disney. Exploiting a loophole, The Conservative paid Lee $15,511 in a series of reimbursements during the same period, according to state Division of Elections records.
Lee is just one example of how powerful lawmakers in both parties still get special interests to cover personal expenses — even after the gift ban and a subsequent reform in 2013.
Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, was personally reimbursed more than $9,000 the past two years by his PAC, Florida's Future. But tally up all reimbursements by his staff, including his committee treasurer, and total reimbursements jumped to $42,674, nearly three times more than any other legislator.
The committees set up by Smith, Lee and others are legally allowed to reimburse their host lawmakers for expenses — as long as they can show it's related to the political mission of their committees.
But a Times/Herald review of 84 committees operated by 75 state legislators shows that a handful of politicians routinely used their committees for reimbursements that could not easily be explained: