Toni Jennings has a message for GOP leaders who have been spending someone else's money on their luxury lifestyles: Stop it.
Stop doing it. Stop trying to justify it.
"Disappointment … that's the most polite word I can use," said the former state Senate president who helped wrest power from the Democrats in the 1990s. "We said we were going to be different. And there are days when I can't tell the difference. And that's a huge disappointment."
Jennings is not alone in her frustration. A growing number of respected Republicans say they are embarrassed by this new generation of leaders who seem to play fast and loose with other people's money.
"It makes people sick about politics," said Florida's Republican U.S. Sen. George LeMieux.
A new Rasmussen poll of Florida Republicans backs that up, with many in state the GOP thinking the Justice Department should investigate.
Back when Jennings was in office, she said that she paid for most of her own meals and even membership fees to social clubs where she did party business. "The only card I had had my name on it," she said. "The bills came to my office. And I paid them."
Compare that with $458,000 in charges racked up by former House speaker Marco Rubio, indicted former speaker Ray Sansom and incoming speaker Dean Cannon.
There were charter planes, luxury hotel rooms, shopping sprees and limousines — most all of it underwritten by special interests who wanted these same men to craft legislation in their favor.
The spending boggles the mind of former state Rep. Allen Trovillion.
"When I would take a trip, I'd get my son to help," the Winter Park Republican said of his son, who worked for an airline. "When I went to Houston's, I went on my own account."
Compare that with Cannon, who used the GOP AmEx to pay for 58 visits to the trendy Winter Park restaurant just a couple of miles from his home.
Neither Jennings nor Trovillion tried to play the part of martyr. They spent party money when they needed to.
But, as Jennings said: "You should be just as judicious as if it were coming out of your own pocket — even more so."
The biggest problem about all this, though, is that it wasn't coming from these guys' pockets. Much of it came from special interests.
And to show you how wickedly wrong that is, consider this: Florida rules prohibit legislators from accepting free lunch from a lobbyist. But, thanks to the credit cards, these same legislators can charter a plane, rent a limo or book a $500-a-night hotel — and then get that same lobbyist to help pay the bill.
It's wrong on many levels. Anyone who argues otherwise is trying to con you.
This needs a thorough investigation — not some whitewash by Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose campaign would benefit by all of this mess simply disappearing.
And it requires more than tough talk, internal audits and bogus bravado from GOP Chairman John Thrasher, who seems to want to blame everything on party staffers.
Nice try. But most Floridians don't care about those guys.
It's the elected officials who need to be thoroughly investigated — the public servants crafting public policy. The ones having their trips underwritten by business interests that wanted legislative favors.
Jennings suggested the current leaders come clean — and then clean up.
They should admit the mistakes, cut up the cards and develop a more credible system for reimbursing legitimate expenses.
In short, they should remember all the small donors who really believe in fiscal conservatism — and get back to the principles that helped them take over the majority in the first place.
Scott Maxwell can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-6141.
GOP veterans say new guys are spoiling the party
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