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As DeSantis returns from overseas trip and book tour, lawmakers make travel records secret

Top Florida officials’ travel records are now sealed under legislation passed by lawmakers.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — From a nationwide book tour to a week-long international trip, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been on the move in recent months, but the details of his travel and costs to the state could soon be permanently sealed.

Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill exempting travel records for the governor, his family and other top state officials from public records requests.

DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is charged with the governor’s safety, has long made these records available, though the agency has been increasingly slow in turning over those requests.

10 Tampa Bay requested information from FDLE on the governor’s recent out-of-state trips, including cost and whether FDLE was reimbursed for any of these trips.

The newly approved public records exemption would apply to past and future travel. The measure would also keep from the public the names of people visiting the governor’s mansion on non-governmental matters.

Supporters say it’s an issue of security.

DeSantis, while at a bill-signing event Monday in Titusville, said he gets “a lot of threats,” and the bill is designed to limit awareness of his movements.

“It’s not necessarily something I came up with,” DeSantis said. “Movements of a protectee is a little different than what you’re doing in the normal course of government activity.”

But critics question the need then for a wholesale exemption that also applies to past travel.

"Security is a legitimate exemption," said Bobby Block, executive director of Florida's First Amendment Foundation. "But there doesn't have to be a conflict between the need to protect our public officials, and the need to guarantee the public's right to know."

Block points out there's history in Florida of politicians on both sides of the aisle found abusing state planes — from former Gov. Lawton Chiles to Charlie Crist. Public records brought those revelations to light, he said.

This move by the Legislature comes as political observers anticipate DeSantis will soon announce his presidential campaign prompting growing interest in the governor’s movements and who is paying for them.

Are taxpayers covering the costs?

Bryan Griffin with the governor’s office told 10 Tampa Bay his recent trip abroad was not at the taxpayers’ expense but organized through Enterprise Florida. Griffin did not respond to a follow-up email with questions about the governor’s domestic travel to promote his book.

When DeSantis last traveled internationally in 2019, the trip was also organized through Enterprise Florida, which is a public-private economic development agency largely funded by the state.

It received $14 million in state funding and $4 million in private funding this year. The agency is supposed to match public funding.

It’s unclear what share of private and public funding paid for the governor’s travel, as the agency did not respond to 10 Tampa Bay’s request for details.

But some of DeSantis’ 2019 trip to Israel was funded by taxpayers.

While private donors footed more than two-thirds of the bill for that trip, according to previous reporting by the News Service of Florida, taxpayers did pay about $131,000 to cover lodging, airfare and other costs for numerous state officials, and security provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

What about the state-owned plane?

Given the limited information being made available by the state on the governor’s travels, 10 Tampa Bay attempted to track the movement of the governor’s state-owned plane.

While the plane is blocked by most flight tracking websites, an independent website, ADS-B Exchange, does track the governor’s plane.

Using the site’s historical data, 10 Tampa Bay cross-referenced the dates of many of the governor’s recent appearances both in and out of state.

For example, on March 8 the flight tracker shows the governor’s plane flying between Tallahassee and Tampa, the same day he held a press conference in Tampa discussing what he called “the book ban hoax.”

But the same tracker did not show any flights when 10 Tampa Bay searched dates where DeSantis traveled out-of-state to promote his book, suggesting he used privately chartered planes. However, members of the FDLE would’ve still accompanied him for security purposes.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement issues an annual report outlining the costs of protecting the governor, his family, the governor’s mansion and visiting dignitaries.

The most recent report in 2022 showed taxpayers spent $6.097 million on such security in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, up 25 percent from the previous year.

While most of the expenses involved protecting DeSantis, the report noted protective services also were provided to the governors of 27 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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