Fabiola Santiago

Trip to Israel by Florida governor and Cabinet weakens once-proud open government | Opinion

Let’s break down Gov. Ron DeSantis’ trip to Israel with his Cabinet, lobbyists, lawmakers, business executives, religious leaders and academics.

That will be some tour group to behold — an army of some 100 Florida suits traipsing through beautiful Tel Aviv, crowded cobble-stoned holy sites, and the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, plus whatever else is on an agenda they won’t fully disclose.

The most obvious detail that comes to mind is who’s paying.

We don’t know.

The governor’s office won’t say how much it will cost taxpayers. But state Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat from Aventura, told the Miami Herald that taxpayers are funding (through the Legislature’s travel funds) his ride, estimated to cost between $3,000 to $4,000.

The travel has all the markings of a typical political junket, only this one is more worrisome than most.

Such ethically challenged trips set up an oasis where government officials — and those they really work for, lobbyists — to mingle away from prying media eyes and ears. The lobbyists on this trip have been described by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reporters as “top-tier” and “powerhouse.”

The elected officials traveling from all over the state include Republicans and Democrats because taking freebies and lack of transparency are bipartisan ills. Everyone talks a good game on ethics, but there are some things like free trips to Israel, Paris, and Spain that the people who run Florida just can’t pass up.

On the home front, Miami-Dade elected officials and staff are experts at it.

The reasons given for this May 25-31 state junket, a nice Saturday-to-Wednesday Memorial Day escape (and vacation for those extending the stay), are an interesting mix of firsts and standard palaver.

A Cabinet meeting on May 29 — yes, an official government session beholden to the Florida Sunshine Law — will be taking place in a foreign country. The unprecedented meeting will be held at the U.S. embassy that bears President Trump’s name on the façade, a popular photo-op haven for American tourists. I was recently there (on my own dime) and it’s a hoot. Those who love Trump pose with pride, pointing at the name. Those who hate him cover up it up with their bodies — or give him the middle finger. I can’t wait to see pictures.

IMG_1521.jpg Americans at U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.jpg
American tourists take photos next to a plaque bearing President Donald Trump’s name at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Fabiola Santiago Fabiola Santiago

The trip is also an alleged “tourism” and “trade mission,” the run-of-the-mill cover for this type of official engagement. But Florida takes it up another notch with another first.

The governor will sign there a controversial anti-Semitisim bill that raises First Amendment constitutional issues yet was passed by the Florida Legislature. Provisions in what will become law with DeSantis’ signature conflate anti-Semitisim with criticism of Israel.

It is worth noting that while lawmakers decided Jews needed special protection after the heinous mass shootings six months apart at synagogues in Pittsburgh and the San Diego area, this Republican-majority-ruled state in the same breath refused to add the protections of other Floridians who suffer discrimination and horrific acts of violence right here: the LGBTQ community.

Their activists and lobbyists were not heard.

I support protections for all groups. Muslims, too, for example, suffer discrimination in Florida.

I support anti-Semitism laws that don’t stifle free speech.

I support Israel’s right to exist — but I also support everyone else’s right to criticize its policies as we do those of any other nation, without fear of being labeled an anti-Semite.

And I don’t support public officials using demagoguery to take overseas trips on taxpayers’ dime, violating Florida’s open-government law, and traveling with the lobbyists that come before them, a straight-up conflict of interest.

This trip to Israel raises so many possible ethics breaches that it makes Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s accepting a theater ticket to see “Hamilton” and a free boat ride around the Statue of Liberty from an undercover FBI agent posing as a lobbyist the tiniest of rookie mistakes.

Yet Gillum narrowly lost the election and the governorship to DeSantis over the shadow it cast on his campaign. He also had to pay a $5,000 fine in a settlement with the state’s ethics commission.

The Israel trip is an affront to Florida’s open government laws — and despite the fact that it will be live-streamed online and played on the Florida Channel — violates Florida’s Sunshine law. What you see on televised meetings is never the full story of a government meeting. The array of media watchdogs who cover Tallahassee won’t be able to be in Israel to cover the official proceeding.

“During this trip, we will affirm Florida as the most pro-Israel state in the nation and strengthen the bond between Florida and Israel for decades to come,” DeSantis justifies the trip in a prepared statement.

We might be amplifying our long-existing ties with Israel — but, in the process, we’re weakening Florida’s once proud open government.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”