Latest News

Lottery giveaways: Zero accountability

When legislators flew to Israel and Brazil, the state picked up the bill. The source of the money: Florida's lottery.

Lottery money also helped pay for a $150,000 Beacon Council study of the South Florida economy.

The Legislature wanted to use $250,000 in lottery money to fund the Lake City Community College golf course, $200,000 for lights at the University of West Florida baseball field and $1 million to upgrade a road in the Blackwater National Forest where school buses often got stuck, but Gov. Bob Martinez said no.

The law that set up the lottery said the money should go toward educational enhancement, but it didn't say it had to. Legislators are free to move money from one fund to another as they search for ways to get their pet projects funded.

"I hope you blast us because we need it, " said Rep. Jeffrey Huenink, R-Clearwater, who went on the Brazil trip. He thought the Commerce Department -- not the lottery -- funded the trip.

"I don't think it's a proper use of lottery dollars per se, which should go strictly for education, " he said. "I think that's what creates some of the concerns with taxpayers. We continue to raise taxes and continue to appropriate turkeys, which some people feel isn't a legitimate use of tax money."

The program that sponsored the legislators' trips was called "International Education Linkages."

Each linkage consists of an institute assigned to a university and a community college throughout the state. The institutes were created to foster better economic and social relations between Florida and foreign countries through colleges and universities.

In 1989, there were eight institutes -- Israel, Brazil, Costa Rica, France, Japan, China, Canada and the Caribbean. The Legislature created a Florida-Russia Institute in 1990.

Martinez's budget staff questioned whether the $500,000 appropriation in 1989 for all the institutes was a good use of public dollars. The internal document was prepared for the governor to guide him when casting vetoes.

"Institutes are of questionable statewide or public benefit and justification has not been provided which demonstrates that they satisfy a priority educational need, " the document stated.

The document also noted that Martinez "may be interested in this item" because he was friends with Herb Swarzman of Tampa, chairman of the Florida-Israel state advisory committee. Martinez did not veto the appropriation.

The Florida-Israel Institute received $150,000 in lottery dollars in 1989. Of that, $100,000 was for an agricultural research project, institute director William Greene said.

The money for the March 19-26 trip to Israel came out of those funds, according to Greene and financial records.

"A major emphasis of the mission was to attend AGRITECH 90, Israel's Eleventh International Agricultural Technology Exhibition, " read an account of the trip in the institute's newsletter.

Educators, private business people, the governor's budget director, Swarzman and four legislators were among those who went on the trip. "These were hardworking legislators, " Greene said. "They did a very good job for us."

Most of the legislators involved say they didn't know lottery money financed the trip.

"I did not know, " said Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa. "It was a working trip. It was not a vacation. We came back dead tired." He took his wife, but paid for her expenses.

Rep. Bo Johnson, D-Milton, also said he did not know that lottery money funded the trip. But he defended the trip as a legitimate use of lottery dollars because access to Israeli research could aid the private sector in Florida.

"The idea of the lottery is to enhance education. If we're able to use experience that's a model for the world and bring that to Florida and help with water conservation programs, that's a proper use, " he said.

Rep. Jack Tobin, D-Margate, thought other funds paid for the trip. "I believe there are other sources of funding the institute gets, " he said. "The trip we went on was a no-frills, all-work trip, " he said. Tobin also took his wife, and likewise paid for her expenses.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, who was then chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, did not return repeated phone calls.

The Florida-Brazil Institute also took a trip to Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia on lottery dollars from Nov. 22 to 28, 1989. Three members of the House Committee on Commerce went along.

The trip was arranged at the request of Rep. Art Simon, chairman of the committee, which was researching the impact of a trade promotion bill. The institute provided documents showing it paid for the air fare for Simon, Huenink and Rep. Ron Saunders with discount airline tickets that cost $1,639 apiece for the round trip.

Simon, D-Kendall, said he did not know that lottery money paid for the trip, but he was aware that the lottery financed the institutes. He said the issue was debated in the Legislature, and everyone, including bureaucrats, agreed it was a good use of lottery dollars.

"The linkage institutes can serve a very valuable function, " he said. "It is absolutely an enhancement."

Simon said he had been asked by House Speaker Tom Gustafson to look into the linkage program to see if it was a good use of public dollars. A new commission created by the Legislature will also be charged with looking into the institutes next year.

"There isn't any other way but to go down and see what they're doing, " Simon said. "It's the same as going to a program in Opa-locka or anywhere else."

Saunders said he was surprised to learn that lottery money paid for the tickets. "The commerce committee handled all of it, " he said. "All we did was go."

In addition to the institutes, the governor's staff also questioned whether lottery dollars should fund the Beacon Council's study of the South Florida economy.

The staff noted it "was not requested by the agency, is located in an inappropriate department and budget entity and is of questionable statewide educational benefit. Duplicates current data collection efforts at various post-secondary institutions. Was not in the House or Senate bills."

It was lobbyist Bob Levy's idea to get lottery dollars to fund the study, which was done by the South Florida Economic Research Foundation, an arm of the Beacon Council. Research for the study was done by staff at Florida Atlantic University, Barry University and the University of Miami.

Levy said he was tracking the item as a favor for the Beacon Council when he discovered that there was no money in the budget for it.

Levy said he then agreed to find money for the item -- for a contingency fee equal to 10 percent of the appropriation. He joined forces with lobbyist Fausto Gomez, who split the fee with him.

They "identified a pot that fit the parameters of what we were looking for, " Levy said. "The pot we took it from was education."

More specifically, they identified the educational enhancement trust fund. Levy and Gomez said they then persuaded legislators in the House and Senate to make sure the item was funded. They also lobbied the governor to make sure it wasn't vetoed.

According to the budget item, the money was necessary "for the collection of data critical to economic development in South Florida, some of which are presently not available and some of which are available only in numbers not adjusted for explosive population growth, immigration, and unsurveyed minority interests."

Beacon Council president Tom Ferguson didn't know that any of the money came from lottery dollars. Did he think it was a good use of lottery funds?

"I can't tell you, " he said. "It's probably a better question for the policymakers than me."

Related stories from Miami Herald