TALLAHASSEE -- The chairman of a Florida Senate committee that oversees gambling relies on the plane owned by a gaming lobbyist for travel to Tallahassee and his Naples home.
Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Gaming, said that his primary mode of travel is Capital Air, owned by Dave Ramba, who is a licensed pilot, lawyer, fundraiser and prominent lobbyist.
In the past two years, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith and others have also flown on what one senator jokingly calls “Air Ramba.”
“Yes, I fly on the airplane that I understand is owned by David Ramba.’’ Richter told the Herald/Times. “I don’t fly alone. It’s my method of transportation. I receive an invoice for Capital Air. I submit that check for my reimbursement. … I don’t see anything inappropriate about it.’’
Ramba, according to legislators, is one of a handful of lobbyists who own planes and makes them available for lawmakers.
The practice of lawmakers taking flights arranged by lobbyists is not illegal in Florida. Ethics Commission rules mainly require that lawmakers pay market rates on any chartered planes.
Ramba declined to comment to the Herald/Times on the chartered flight arrangements with Richter and other lawmakers.
In an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Ramba said his air charter business serves lots of customers, including lawmakers, and that he considers flying elected officials an age-old tradition in Tallahassee. “Lobbyists have been flying lawmakers for years,” he said. “It’s nothing new.”
As a lobbyist, Ramba represents many clients with diverse interests. One, however, has gaming interests before Richter’s Senate committee: Frontier Florida LLC, a software company that works with Internet cafes.
Another Ramba client is the Florida Optometric Association, which supports a bill that would allow optometrists to prescribe oral medications. The bill’s sponsor: Richter.
As a fundraiser, Ramba has collected $867,000 in campaign contributions over the past two years for a political committee called Save Our Internet Access, which advocates regulations — not the banning — of Internet cafes.
According to FAA flight logs, Ramba’s two planes have made 26 flights between Tallahassee and Naples in the past year. In nearly every case, Ramba’s planes would fly from Naples to Tallahassee at the beginning of a legislative committee week and from Tallahassee to Naples at the end of the week. During the committee weeks of Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, Ramba’s plane was used exclusively for flights between Tallahassee and Naples — flights at the beginning and end of the weeks.
Richter had supported legislation that would legalize Internet cafes for a year and put a moratorium on new ones until lawmakers complete a sweeping overhaul of the state’s gambling laws next year.
But Richter and others have abandoned the moratorium and proposed a ban in the wake of this week’s arrest of 57 individuals with ties to Jacksonville-based Allied Veterans of the World, a purported veterans charity that ran an illegal gambling operation in 49 Internet cafes in Florida.
The full House is scheduled to vote on the bill next week. Richter’s committee will vote on a similar bill on Monday.