New law shields DeSantis’ use of state vehicles to campaign

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TALLAHASSEE — If it hadn’t been for a fender bender on Interstate 75 near Chattanooga, Tennessee, Tuesday morning, most folks wouldn’t know that Gov. Ron DeSantis was using state government vehicles for his 2024 run for president.

Tuesday’s four-vehicle collision on the way to a campaign fundraiser draws a curtain back on the campaign’s use of state resources. But finding out who’s paying for it is nearly impossible thanks to a new law passed by the Legislature to protect the governor’s travel records from public view.

“The legislature has enabled him to hide his travel records so we don’t know and have no way to hold him accountable if he is using state resources in his campaign or if that is even the case,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonprofit government watchdog.

It was frustrating enough when trying to monitor his use of government resources while traveling around the state, Rep. Anna Eskamani said, but to take those people and vehicles out of state is even worse.

“It’s absurd that he’s using public resources and public infrastructure to campaign.” said Eskamani, D-Orlando. “He’s using state resources to boost himself politically.”

The governor’s campaign motorcade was on their way to a fundraiser in Chattanooga when an accident up ahead caused traffic to slow down. A Tennessee Highway Patrol officer leading the motorcade stopped short, Chattanooga police reported, causing the vehicles behind it to rear-end each other.

“If the accident hadn’t been reported, we wouldn’t have known otherwise about the use of state vehicles,” Eskamani said. “It makes you wonder how often state vehicles and public employees are being used at out-of-state campaign events.”

A female staffer was treated on the scene for minor injuries, but no one else was hurt, police said. Other accident victims included Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents. All the vehicles involved were government vehicles, the police report said.

The accident occurred at the start of a long day of campaign fundraisers scheduled in Tennessee, including in Knoxville and Nashville.

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for more information about the use of state vehicles and personnel.

“We’ve never answered questions about our protective operations assets (number of agents used, vehicles etc.),” FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said when asked how much the agency was charging for travel and security for the governor’s campaign.

The FDLE puts out an annual protective services report in August, but Plessinger didn’t say whether it would break down campaign expenses or show reimbursements for them.

The DeSantis campaign’s federal campaign finance report filed July 15 for the three-month period ending June 30 doesn’t show any payments to FDLE for travel or security expenses.It does show the campaign spent $76,256 on private security firms, including $64,588 to Rubicon Protection security services of Sun City, Ariz.

The accountability issue comes at a time when the governor’s campaign has burned through contributions at an alarming rate, forcing DeSantis to tighten the belt and lay off 38 people, or a third of his campaign staff.

The largest expenditures seem to meet at the crossroad of staff and travel, as he’s been known to travel with a large entourage of staffers and security.

The campaign raised $20 million through June 30. Of the $8.2 million spent through that date, just over $1 million was spent on payroll and nearly that much on travel.

His presidential campaign spent $896,000 on travel-related costs through June 30, with more than half of that going to one company, N2024D LLC, located in Athens, Ga. It filed incorporation papers in Florida on May 22, two days before DeSantis officially announced his candidacy for president.

One of the LLC’s officers, Paul Kilgore, is a GOP operative responsible for running political committees and super PACs supporting candidates for federal office, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry when he ran for president, and Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke. He currently is heading up a fundraising committee for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for president.

Kilgore owns several of companies that do political consulting, marketing and campaign compliance, including Capitol Hill Lists and Professional Data Services.

Another $98,000 went to Empyreal Jets and $31,205 to Avion Aviation, both charter services out of Houston.

It’s well-documented that DeSantis has a penchant for flying on private jets provided by a group of wealthy donors representing hoteliers, developers, restaurateurs, investment bankers, trucking magnates and oil and gas distributors.

Questions have dogged DeSantis since his reelection campaign began about whose private jets he’s traveling on and whether they are being reported as in-kind contributions or gifts.

An Orlando Sentinel review of state records in November documented more than $500,000 to cover his transportation costs for his re-election in 2022, on top of millions in straight-up donations.

It’s unprecedented, Wilcox said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a sitting governor run for [president].”

DeSantis is also setting a precedent for lack of transparency, said Michael Barfield, director of public access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.

“At the end of the day, taxpayers don’t know what their money is being spent on,” Barfield said.

His group is talking to its lawyers about next steps.

“We’re questioning the validity of the exemption,” Barfield said. “We don’t think it meets a public purpose, so we will brainstorm about potential legal action.”

Eskamani said if the Legislature wanted to make the governor more accountable, it could repeal the public records exemption.

But, she said, that would be a long shot. “It would take a political will that doesn’t exist, even for something as nonpartisan as access to travel records.”