One politician’s bribe is another’s 'in-kind contribution'

On Monday, the head of a worldwide hotel chain checked into the Miami-Dade jail in connection with corruption charges.

Prosecutors say the CEO of RIU Hotels and Resorts gave free rooms to a building official in Miami Beach in exchange for help with permit approvals.

Both hotel executives and the public official were charged with unlawful compensation and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation.

The news may have shocked some. But it just confused me … since Florida resorts give public officials free rooms all the time.

A few years back, the Orlando Sentinel described how Universal Orlando gave House Republicans and the GOP more than $800,000 worth of free rooms and other perks for “retreats” before legislative sessions.

Heck, Democrats reported $182,000 worth of freebies from Disney just a few months ago.

In Tallahassee, such transactions aren’t considered a crime … they’re considered a tradition.

So said the Sentinel’s 2013 story, which described the pre-session gathering as “a tradition for Universal, which provides the Republican Party with free park tickets, hotel rooms, meals and more.” Also: “Universal provided the Democrats $75,000 worth of food and other freebies” as well.

And that’s just the theme parks. While Republicans say they used donations to pay for hotel rooms in more recent years, both sides continue to take freebies — labeled as “in-kind contributions” — from companies that need legislative favors.

Records show the Democrats took $25,000 worth of “suite tickets” from TECO Energy in December, just a few weeks after Republicans accepted a $9,000 “game suite” from Duke Energy.

This is the part of the column where I am supposed to explain to you the difference — why one kind of free hotel room is OK and the other is not.

But I can’t. And won’t.

There are allegedly technical differences. The “in-kind contributions” are funneled through the political parties instead of being given directly to the lawmakers. And theoretically there is no specific “ask” attached to the free rooms or suite seats.

But if you think the companies that hand out these perks have motives any purer than the ones the Miami Beach hotelier allegedly had, then I’ve got $50 worth of swampland I’d like to sell you for about $50,000 worth of “in-kind contributions.”

Corpses, cats and cash

This week’s only-in-Florida headlines: “Van with dead body inside is stolen from Jacksonville cremation business” … “Villager’s painting of her cat stolen from display at recreation center” … “Miami Lakes Man Who Hid $22M in Home Depot Buckets Will Keep $4M in Plea Deal”…“Federal agent took cash and prostitutes to help a Cali cartel drug lord avoid arrest”

In other words, it was a bad week to be a corpse or artist in Florida. Things looked better, though, for accused crooks and drug lords.

Raiding housing

Newspapers around the state have recently exposed a legislative scam — the raid on the state’s affordable-housing fund.

The scam involves the fund set up years ago for the express purpose of dealing with the state’s affordable-housing shortage. It’s financed by a fee attached to real-estate transactions.

The problem is that legislators continually raid that fund. They stole half the $300 million designated for housing this year to pay for other things. And they’re looking to do it again next year, with Speaker Richard Corcoran citing a “tight budget year.”

That, my friends, is a complete crock. The budget isn’t “tight.” Spending is at an all-time high. Plus, they’ve raided the fund for the last eight years.

This isn’t about lean times. It’s about priorities. And using money for housing — and for the express purpose it was collected — apparently isn’t a priority for these guys.

More on this at orlandosentinel.com/takingnames

Toll road motives

And finally, in recent days, the Sentinel has been full of coverage about whether a proposed toll road should disrupt a community of happy residents or tear up a swath of environmentally sensitive land.

The issue is couched as an either/or choice. Do we want to mess up people or the planet? Much less attention is being paid to why we are having this debate at all.

As reporter Kevin Spear explained in his big-picture piece about Split Oak Forest: “… the expressway authority is considering paving a highway across or near the forest, in large part to enable massive development by Tavistock Development Co. and the corporate family of Deseret Ranches. They have offered millions of dollars in land and cash as road incentives.”

That is the real story. And it is the story of our state in general.

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