Piggybacking pattern? DeSantis flights blur line between state travel, campaign

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Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign for president hasn’t been going well, as former President Donald Trump continues to dominate in the polls and fundraising.

Yet on Wednesday DeSantis took time off the campaign trail to dedicate a county park that was renamed in his honor.

Governor Ron DeSantis Park in Southwest Florida's Manatee County features pickleball courts, playgrounds, fitness trails and dog parks. The pickleball courts may not have been the real draw for DeSantis, though.

Later in the day he held a presidential fundraiser at an exclusive golf club near the park, where guests paid a minimum of $1,500 to hear the governor talk about Israel and other issues.

It appears that DeSantis flew to Wednesday's events in his state plane, raising the question of whether taxpayer resources benefited his presidential campaign.

DeSantis' wife, Casey DeSantis, may even be following the pattern.

The state plane flew to Sarasota a second time a day later on Thursday, Oct. 19. Casey DeSantis had long been scheduled – the event was announced in April – to headline a fundraiser for the Sarasota GOP, which was held Thursday evening. She also held an official event at New College of Florida earlier in the day announcing an employment program for disabled persons. The event was announced that day.

It's not the first time the governor's office appears to have used a state plane to double up public appearances and personal fundraisers. State law prohibits the state's elected chief executive from using the plane for personal use, but by stacking the two Manatee County events – one official and one personal – taxpayers may be covering flights to fundraisers.

"The use of public resources to supplement his campaign has been a consistent pattern," said Ben Wilcox, research director and co-founder of government watchdog group Integrity Florida.

While DeSantis' jet travel has been under scrutiny for months, governor's office spokesman Jeremy Redfern said the governor is following the law.

"Governor DeSantis only uses the state plane for state business, in accordance with the law," Redfern said.

A history of costly jet travel

Even before he was a presidential candidate, the New York Times reported that DeSantis was relying on a nonprofit to pay for private jet trips in an arrangement that shielded donors who were footing the bill from public view, which ethics experts described as questionable.

More recently, the Times reported that a super PAC that isn't supposed to coordinate with DeSantis' campaign is paying to fly the candidate to PAC events.

Flying around to campaign events and fundraisers on private jets isn’t cheap. Politico reported that DeSantis’ presidential campaign spent $1.5 million in the third quarter on private jet companies, with payments going to six different jet companies over the summer.

Using private jets has contributed to a cash crunch for DeSantis’ campaign, which spent nearly all the money it raised in the third quarter.

The campaign has been trying to control costs. Some political observers believe that piggybacking an official state event onto a political fundraiser may be an attempt to justify flying to the fundraiser on the state dime.

Piecing together travel records that DeSantis has shielded

DeSantis' travel records aren't public after the governor signed legislation this year exempting them from Florida's open records laws. USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida used used aircraft identification records to track DeSantis’ plane on this and several other trips.

An individual familiar with the governor’s travel said he flew into the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport airport for the Manatee County events, and flight data supports that.

The Florida Legislature approved the purchase of a $15.5 million Cessna Citation Latitude jet for DeSantis's use in 2020. The plane is registered to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Flight tracking website ADS-B Exchange shows the FDLE plane departing Tallahassee at 4:27 p.m. and arriving in Sarasota at 5:08 p.m.. The park dedication ceremony was at 5:30 p.m.

DeSantis flight tracker: The Florida college student who tracked Elon Musk's jet on Twitter is now tracking Ron DeSantis

It does not appear that DeSantis took the state plane home. It left Sarasota for Tallahassee at 6:03 p.m. Wednesday.

The fundraiser at The Concession Golf Club in eastern Manatee County started at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to the invitation.

DeSantis was back on the campaign trail Thursday with an event in South Carolina launching a veteran's coalition.

Political piggybacking on policy: 'Everybody does it'

The Manatee County events aren't the first time that DeSantis has scheduled official appearances and fundraisers on the same day and location, and he is far from the only elected officials to pair events like that.

For example, former President Barack Obama visited the Miami area in 2015, where he toured the National Hurricane Center and held two fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee.

“Everybody does it,” said a top Florida Republican. “Because the goal is to shift the cost from your campaign to essentially the taxpayers.”

Wilcox said the governor is "adept at blurring the lines between his public business and his campaign."

"A public official is supposed to draw a bright line between the two," Wilcox added. "That said, it's not uncommon for public officials who are also campaigning to test the limits of what they can legally get away with. That appears to be what's going on here."

DeSantis' Manatee County fundraiser was held at The Concession Golf Club, one of the nicest private clubs in the region. A few dozen guests gathered in The Concession’s banquet room, where they munched on appetizers and listened to DeSantis deliver familiar talking points.

The invitation for an Oct. 18 fundraiser for Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign. The event was held at The Concession Golf Club in Manatee County. DeSantis also dedicated a county party in Manatee County earlier in the day. He appears to have flown to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport on a state plane.
The invitation for an Oct. 18 fundraiser for Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign. The event was held at The Concession Golf Club in Manatee County. DeSantis also dedicated a county party in Manatee County earlier in the day. He appears to have flown to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport on a state plane.

The fundraiser was hosted by former Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, who also was at the park dedication ceremony, along with prominent home builders Pat Neal and Carlos Beruff and Concession developer Bruce Cassidy, according to an invitation obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida.

Fundraiser attendees were asked to give $11,600 to participate in a "VIP roundtable." Just attending the reception cost $1,500.

DeSantis' familiar flight pattern

Last year, the FDLE plane used by the governor flew to Fort Myers on May 3, according to ADS-B Exchange.

DeSantis held a press conference at 2:15 p.m. that day at Lover’s Key State Park.

Later that day he attended two fundraisers an hour north in Sarasota, and the plane flew back to Tallahassee from Fort Myers that same evening.

The governor’s press conference was to announce $20 million in “Resilient Florida” grants to various communities, something that he could have done with a press release but instead used as an opportunity for a public event.

The fundraisers DeSantis held later in the day included one at a mansion on Siesta Key that required a minimum contribution of $25,000 to attend.

In 2021, DeSantis held a fundraiser in Boca Raton on August 18 at 5 p.m.. The governor held three public events earlier that day, first appearing at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Conference in Hollywood, before holding afternoon press conference in Pembroke Pines and West Palm Beach to announce new monoclonal antibody treatment sites.

Flight tracking data shows his plane flew from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale and then up to West Palm Beach that day. DeSantis ended the day at the governor’s mansion, where he did an interview with FOX News host Sean Hannity.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Fundraiser raises questions about Ron DeSantis' use of state plane