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Sen. Garrett Richter's Kentucky Derby ride offers a glimpse into Tallahassee's world

The head of the Senate Select Committee on Gaming has never served on a gaming committee and reminds people that he has a steep learning curve.

But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is a horse racing fan who flew to the Kentucky Derby with Internet café lobbyist Dave Ramba and two other gaming lobbyists last year, where they sat on Millionaire’s Row. 

“I have been going to the Kentucky Derby every year since before I entered the Legislature,’’ Richter, a six-year legislative veteran, told the Herald/Times on Monday.

Richter’s wife and business partner, Gary Tice of Naples, also attended the event. Ramba told the Herald/Times Richter was one of “at least 20 to 30 legislators and that many lobbyists who took private jets to the Derby for House and Senate leadership fundraisers” during the May 4 and 5 event.

Unlike most years, the session began and ended early last year because of reapportionment and the Derby weekend was a perfect venue for collecting campaign cash for most lawmakers. But the high-end fundraiser, at one of the most prestigious gambling events in the nation, also offers a glimpse into the comfort with which legislators mingle with the same lobbyists who seek their votes.

Richter said he used personal funds to reimburse for the cost of the plane, as well as the $2,600 in tickets for him and his wife to attend the derby and The Kentucky Oaks, the first event of the weekend.

“Sen. Richter always pays the going rate for any flight he is on – often he ensures he overpays to avoid any allegation that he is getting some type of ‘deal,’” Ramba wrote in an e-mail. “Many times he even prints out the rate from the commercial flight and staples it to his check.  He is totally above board." 

The other lobbyists on the plane arranged by Ramba through his client, Brad Olah, the head of an Internet café company: Nick Iarossi of Las Vegas Sands, and his wife, and Brady Benford of Churchill Downs, and his girlfriend. 

Republican Party of Florida contribution logs show that U.S. Sugar and The Geo Group provide in-kind air travel for many other Republicans during the weekend. U.S. Sugar’s airplane expenses were $5,389 while the Geo Group’s were $3,604. 

Richter acknowledged Monday that he considers Ramba “a good friend” and, although he is carrying a bill to help Ramba’s client, the Florida Optometric Association, he doesn’t give him special treatment. 

“Not once has David Ramba ever come to me and said anything about any gaming legislation,’’ Richter said. 

Richter, a banker who along with Tice, owns TGR Financial in Naples, also has a business relationship with Ramba. 

Ramba said he has known Tice for more than 20 years when he first worked as a legislative assistant at the Community Bankers of Florida and has made a small investment, “somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 or $10,000” in Tice and Richter’s latest company.

Ramba does not represent the Internet cafes under investigation, Allied Veterans of the World and its software company International Internet Technology, and never has. He said he also does not own any stake in the operation of any internet cafes.

“I have been a lawyer for the software company and cafes that need assistance with permitting and processing government approvals, and a lobbyist at the state capital on their issues,’’ he wrote. “There is no ownership, percentage, split or any other type arrangement I have with the ownership of internet cafes.”