Friday, July 5, 2019

Florida taxpayers paid more than $30K for Cabinet trip to Israel, and costs aren't all in yet

Posted By on Fri, Jul 5, 2019 at 12:37 PM

click to enlarge Gov. Ron DeSantis meets with the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman - PHOTOS COURTESY OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR
  • photos courtesy Office of the Governor
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis meets with the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman
More than a month after Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Cabinet, and aides returned from a trade mission to Israel, it’s still not clear how much the trip cost state taxpayers.

Some state employees who traveled at taxpayer expense stayed in a more than $400-a-night luxury hotel in Jerusalem, where a Cabinet meeting was held, the News Service of Florida reported this week.

The governor’s office has not released expense records from the week-long trip. Enterprise Florida, an economic-development agency that receives state and private money and helped plan the trip, said on its website that “total mission expenses are compiled approximately 45-60 days” after the trip ends, suggesting it could still be about a month before a total tally will be made public.

But records obtained by the News Service detailing travel expenses of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Cabinet staff members show taxpayers footed the bill for nearly $30,000 in hotel rooms, airfare, “registration” fees for Enterprise Florida, baggage fees and per-diem costs, which can include meals. That total covered expenses for Fried, three of her staff members, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ chief of staff and Attorney General Ashley Moody’s general counsel.



Records show Fried and the five staff members spent $15,663 for hotel rooms, which included nights at the David Citadel Hotel, a luxury five-star hotel in Jerusalem that charges $425 a night with the promise of a “majestic Jerusalem experience facing the Old City wall.”

The records show, in part, that two of Fried’s employees each stayed at the David Citadel for two nights, totaling $1,700. Moody's general counsel also stayed there for two nights for a total of $850. A report for Patronis’ chief of staff, Ryan West, did not provide detailed information about hotel stays, but his lodging expenses for the trip totaled $2,400.

The tab for the lodging, picked up by taxpayers, “starts to sound more like a junket than a real trade mission,” said Ben Wilcox, director of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit group that does research on ethics-related issues.

Kathleen Keenan, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Florida, said the hotel was picked after taking security concerns and room capacity into consideration. She said more than 90 hotel rooms needed to be reserved for the delegation of about 200 people. Along with state leaders, the delegation included top-tier lobbyists, business officials such as the president and CEO of Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility company, and 24 people representing Florida universities.

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