TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As the election clock counts down to Nov. 8, Gov. Ron DeSantis is once again flying around the state handing out oversized checks worth millions to local officials while delivering attacks on President Biden, COVID-19 lockdowns and inflation.
Political analysts have said for months that the campaign-style events, complete with handpicked audiences and a dais full of Republican allies, blur the line between his official public duties and campaigning.
Now they’re saying that line was crossed when DeSantis on Aug. 30 criticized Karla Hernandez-Mats, the running mate of his Democratic rival for governor, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, at an event in Fort Pierce where he was handing out a $2.7 million Florida Job Growth grant.
“There is always a political component to anything the governor does,” former Republican consultant and lobbyist Mac Stipanovich said. “The line between what is all right and not OK is not a bright line, but DeSantis certainly crossed it at an event that was under way, that was paid for by the taxpayers in terms of travel and all that entails.”
Things got even fuzzier when the governor’s press secretary referred questions about his comments to his campaign staff.
“That proves there is no separation between the two offices,” Stipanovich said. “They’re one and the same.”
Without prompting, DeSantis launched into a criticism of Hernandez-Mats, accusing the teachers union boss, without offering any evidence, of protecting a middle school teacher who was ultimately arrested and convicted of child sexual abuse after years of investigation.
The governor is “at liberty to comment on any topic that affects Florida, which may include political topics,” DeSantis’ press secretary Bryan Griffin said. “But there is a big difference between commenting on political topics — which is inherent in being governor — and campaigning for office.”
But some political analysts have seen that difference eroding.
“Clearly there are no longer any lines,” said Daniel Smith, head of the political science department at the University of Florida. “He’s using state dollars to clearly push a partisan campaign message.”
In fact, at two campaign events the day before in Fort Myers and Stuart, where he picked up an endorsement from the Everglades Trust, DeSantis hammered away at some of the same talking points as he does at official press conferences.
Campaign staff did not respond to an email asking how he got to and from those events. But it was evident from video that Florida Marine Patrol and FDLE agents were present.
The FDLE is obligated by state law to protect the governor and his family 24/7 even when he travels out of state to campaign for other politicians or attend fundraisers.
How much the state is spending on these trips, which Stipanovich calls “performances,” is not known because the state agency in charge of those records has not fulfilled multiple records requests made over the past 14 months. One request was made last July, while another was made in December.
Outlets including the Orlando Sentinel have requested detailed expenses for each trip the governor takes on official business.
But the state has failed to produce them, even though those records are compiled and reviewed each year by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for an annual report on transportation and protective services.
“We have dozens of requests pending for schedules and information about the jet,” said FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plesinger in a reply to a Sentinel reporter about the status of the records request. “Each of your requests are being worked on, either in the research or review phase. Because of the sensitive nature of Protection Operations, all documents provided must be redacted.”
Edward Birk, a shareholder with the Marks Gray law firm in Jacksonville and a member of the Board of Trustees of the First Amendment Foundation, said he was dismayed that the FDLE had taken over a year to fulfill one request in particular.
When DeSantis first took office in 2019, the state didn’t have a plane for official business. His predecessor, Rick Scott, sold off the state planes because he had his own private jet.
DeSantis was stuck with a twin-prop plane that had been impounded by the Drug Enforcement Agency and sold to the state for $10,000 but it was mothballed after mechanical problems forced an emergency landing.
The FDLE, which is responsible for the governor’s security, bought a custom-built, nine-seat Cessna Citation Latitude by Textron Avionics for $15.5 million.
The latest annual travel and protective services report, released in August, said the cost of providing security and travel expenses for DeSantis alone went up 26% from fiscal 2021 to fiscal 2022, which ended June 30. It went from $3.8 million, including $2 million for travel, to $4.8 million, including $2.4 million in travel.
For the 2021-22 budget, the Legislature allocated $3.4 million for “Executive Direction and Support (Program), Aviation Services.” For the current year, the Legislature allocated $3.08 million.
When the plane was bought, officials estimated it would be flown about 400 hours a year at a cost of about $3,000 per flight hour. The current industry estimate for operating a Cessna Citation Latitude is $4,250 an hour. That doesn’t include salaries for the two-person crew required to operate the jet or the security entourage.
DeSantis is using the state’s resources for the dual purpose of campaigning and handing out money to public officials, Smith said.
“We continue seeing the governor exploit state resources for politicking,” Smith said. “We have government watchdogs with very few teeth, who aren’t even monitoring these things.”
But Americans live in a time where many politicians support a former president who still thinks he won the 2020 election and seems to have skirted federal guidelines himself, Smith said.
“There is a lack of accountability,” Smith said, “and the court of public opinion is also lacking.”