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DeSantis took undisclosed private flights and lodging through wealthy donors

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took at least six undisclosed trips on private jets and accepted lodging and dining in late 2018, according to flight manifests, tracking data and other documents obtained by The Washington Post that reflect his proclivity for luxury travel and leisure time with wealthy donors.

The trips came during the period between DeSantis’s election and inauguration as governor. On one, DeSantis traveled to the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club on a plane owned by Mori Hosseini, a major home builder who supplied a golf simulator in the governor’s mansion and later benefited from $92 million in federal pandemic funding that the DeSantis administration steered to a highway interchange project he sought. DeSantis took four other flights on a plane that was registered at the time to John Cwik, another DeSantis donor, records show.

DeSantis did not report the flights or accommodations as gifts or campaign contributions and it’s unclear whether he used a separate legal option to personally reimburse for the flights at the cost of coach airfare. A DeSantis spokesman said he complied with regulations but declined to specify how the costs of the trips were paid or how they met ethics and disclosure requirements.

His then-campaign lawyer wrote in a memo to his transition team that as governor-elect, he was “required to report with the Ethics Commission all direct and indirect gifts accepted that are worth over $100,” including “transportation,” “lodging” and “food.” Paid travel for political purposes was required to be disclosed as an in-kind campaign contribution, lawyer Ben Gibson advised in the 17-page memo.

Costs that are reimbursed are not considered gifts and do not have to be reported, Gibson’s memo explained. Ethics Commission rules allow private jet trips to be paid back at the cost of a coach ticket on the same route, rather than the actual operating cost of the flight, which is typically many times higher. This provision could have allowed DeSantis, who is not personally wealthy, to ride on donors’ planes for a fraction of the cost, all while avoiding any public scrutiny.

“All travel and events you mention — from almost five years ago — were compliant and received proper payment,” the DeSantis campaign spokesman, Andrew Romeo, said. “Efforts to fundraise for state political parties and cultivate relationships with state officials are standard for political leaders, especially during an election year.”

The undisclosed trips, which have not been previously reported, reflect how DeSantis fueled his political rise through close bonds with rich patrons and had a taste for luxury travel, in contrast to his campaign’s portrayal of DeSantis’s humble blue-collar roots and aversion to moneyed interests. His preference for private jet travel has continued into his White House bid, even as his campaign has struggled to rein in spending. In an unusual arrangement, the campaign is sharing some costs for private plane travel with the super PAC supporting him.

Romeo called this story “Trump-legacy media collusion” and claimed DeSantis has the best chance to defeat President Biden. “Ron DeSantis has always fought back against the establishment and won, and this election will be no different,” Romeo said.

“Additional questions regarding events, itineraries and documentation from almost five years ago should be directed to Susie Wiles, the staffer who oversaw such matters prior to her dismissal,” he continued.

Wiles, a top Republican operative in Florida, was the head of DeSantis’s transition team in late 2018. She was publicly ousted from his political operation in 2019 and is now a top adviser to Trump. Wiles referred questions to the Trump campaign.

“The DeSantis campaign’s ridiculous statement doesn’t even merit a response,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. “Instead of pointing fingers and trying to place blame on others — like they have historically done — the DeSantis’ should take a good, hard look in the mirror to better understand why they chose to act unethically and sell access to their office.”

DeSantis has not filed any gift disclosures throughout his time in office, according to the Florida Ethics Commission. The commission has received 12 complaints about DeSantis, all of which were dismissed. None were relevant to the undisclosed trips.

Searches of state campaign finance disclosures by DeSantis’s campaign, his affiliated political action committee and the Florida Republican Party did not produce any records of donations or expenditures corresponding to the private flights documented in the records obtained by The Post. In other instances later in his administration, DeSantis’s private flights were disclosed as in-kind contributions to his PAC or the state GOP. The state GOP did not respond to a request for comment.

The state disclosure requirement contains an exception for some relatives but not for friends. The Ethics Commission has repeatedly determined that free flights on private planes count as gifts, according to Caroline Klancke, a former commission general counsel and deputy executive director. State law provides penalties including fines of $10,000 per violation of the gift rules and Klancke said DeSantis’s actions could prompt further scrutiny.

While state rules generally value gifts at the “actual cost to the donor,” they allow the value of private jet travel to be “given the same value as an unrestricted coach fare.” Valuing lodging and golf rounds that are not generally available to the public would be more complicated, Klancke said.

“It’s always hard when there’s golf involved. These gift issues are very complex,” Klancke said. She added that the situation could receive further scrutiny from the Ethics Commission: “Were they given for the purpose of influencing the public official or engendering goodwill? These are things that go to the fabric of the fairness of the government.”

DeSantis’s willingness to accept perks after being elected troubled some of his advisers at the time, who feared that he would run afoul of the state’s ethics laws, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. The Gibson memo was written partially to explain to DeSantis exactly what he could and could not do, according to people with knowledge of the document, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The memo also warned against taking gifts from those seeking to curry favor with the incoming governor.

“Public officers are prohibited from soliciting or accepting anything of value, such as a gift, loan, reward, promise of future employment, favor or service that is based on an understanding that their vote, official action or judgment would be influenced by such gift,” the memo said. “Public officers and employees are prohibited from corruptly using or attempting to use their official positions or the resources thereof to obtain a special privilege or benefit for themselves or others.”

Gibson, who remains a top Tallahassee lawyer for Florida Republicans, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Post reviewed travel documents in 2018 showing a governor-elect who showed a penchant for private plane travel and maintained close relationships with wealthy donors and other associates. After taking office, DeSantis was frequently given the use of planes by influential Floridians and others, records show. His team was often seeking out supporters who could provide planes, according to former advisers and a list of potential donors who could be asked to provide planes that was obtained by The Post, a practice that is allowed and ordinarily subject to disclosure requirements.

The trip to Augusta National Golf Club occurred on Dec. 20 and 21, 2018. A private jet registered to one of Hosseini’s companies took off from Daytona, where Hosseini and the plane are based, and flew to Sarasota to pick up then-state Senate President Bill Galvano, according to an itinerary prepared by DeSantis’s team and plane-tracking data. Gift or campaign finance disclosures for Galvano from the trip could not be found.

Hosseini did not respond to specific questions about the Augusta trip but said he had always acted “legally.” A spokeswoman for Galvano declined to say how the trip complied with ethics rules. “Any and all travel I did during my time as Senate President to raise support for the Republican Party of Florida was always done in accordance with Florida law and part of the job,” Galvano said in a statement.

From Sarasota, Hosseini’s jet proceeded to St. Augustine, near where DeSantis was living at the time, to pick him up along with an adviser and two state bodyguards, according to the documents.

The plane next flew to Walterboro, S.C., where DeSantis’s security team brought the group to the Congaree Golf Club for a round between Hosseini, DeSantis, Galvano and the adviser, according to the itinerary. Ground transportation was provided by DeSantis’s security team, according to the itinerary. Two people familiar with the trip said the security team consisted of state officers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which protects the governor and the governor-elect, declined to comment.

In South Carolina, the group returned to the airport to fly to Augusta, Ga., according to the itinerary and flight data. There, DeSantis and Hosseini were picked up by Fred Ridley, a Tampa-based lawyer and chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, according to the itinerary. The Florida security officers followed them in a separate vehicle, according to the itinerary.

The advisers and bodyguards were not allowed to follow DeSantis, Hosseini, Galvano and Ridley into the club, the itinerary said. A person familiar with the trip confirmed that the guards were not allowed to trail DeSantis on the course — and sometimes were left off other courses, or at high-end homes where he stayed. Ridley did not respond to a request for comment.

Augusta National boasts an exclusive membership list that includes some of the world’s most powerful people and hosts the annual Masters tournament, widely regarded as the most prestigious golf competition. The itinerary noted that DeSantis needed to wear a jacket and tie for dinner and would stay the night in the club’s Eisenhower room, a cabin built for the 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a club member, and marked with the presidential seal above the door. The meal and lodging also do not appear in disclosures for gifts, contributions or expenditures either.

DeSantis, Hosseini, Ridley and Galvano played the next day, according to the itinerary, and then Hosseini’s plane flew the governor-elect back to St. Augustine.

DeSantis returned to Augusta for the Masters in 2019 and 2021, according to photographs of him at the event. It was not clear how those trips were paid for; there were no disclosures of the travel costs as gifts or political activity, according to The Post’s review of ethics and campaign finance disclosures. Romeo declined to comment on how those trips complied with the law.

DeSantis’s love of golf has been one recurring way for lobbyists and donors to spend time with him in exchange for campaign contributions. When he became governor, he approved a plan that involved attempting to “sell” appointments with DeSantis at a course he enjoyed in Tallahassee, according to documents reviewed by The Post.

In 2021, DeSantis named Ridley to the University of Florida Board of Trustees and reappointed Hosseini, who has made substantial campaign contributions to benefit DeSantis in Florida, as the board’s chairman. Companies he controls gave $1 million to the super PAC supporting DeSantis’s White House bid this year.

After DeSantis was reelected last year, his administration directed $92 million in covid relief funds to build a controversial highway interchange that would directly benefit one of Hosseini’s development projects. “With or without the interchange, we would have built Woodhaven there, but it certainly helps,” Hosseini told a local newspaper of the project in 2019. Hosseini denied seeking any special favors. DeSantis’s office referred questions to the state Department of Transportation, which did not directly respond to questions about DeSantis’s or Hosseini’s involvement in the decision to fund the project.

Hosseini sent a lengthy document to The Post on Tuesday that showed discussions about the interchange dating back to 1998, well before DeSantis was in office. But the documents also show that questions were raised about the viability and wisdom of the project over the years.

“I or my company have never ever asked for anything from this governor or any other previous governors,” he said in an email to The Post.

Flight manifests, itineraries and tracking data showed four other flights DeSantis took in November and December of 2018 on a plane that was registered at the time to John Cwik, another DeSantis political donor who is the CEO of a window manufacturer in Ocala, Fla. Those flights also did not appear in any campaign finance disclosures. Cwik said he did not know how the flights were paid for because the arrangements were made through a chartering company called Rennia Aviation. A search of Florida political expenditures did not return any disclosures for payments to that company. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

“I tried to give it to him one day at a fundraiser and he said ‘I can’t do that,’” Cwik said of offering to let DeSantis use his plane free.

In another trip documented in a flight manifest and plane-tracking data reviewed by The Post, DeSantis flew between Tallahassee and St. Augustine on Nov. 15, 2018, on a plane that was registered to a Utah-based company called TVPX Aircraft Solutions. The company’s website says it provides Federal Aviation Administration registration services for foreign entities and other clients that do not meet ownership requirements or want higher privacy protection. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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