Fact checking Florida gubernatorial debate: Did DeSantis use tax money for campaign trips?

On live television in two Florida gubernatorial debates, Democrat Andrew Gillum has hammered Republican Ron DeSantis for not releasing detailed receipts showing how he used more than $145,000 in taxpayer money for travel during his nearly six years in Congress.

It was new ammunition for Gillum, who has been dogged by DeSantis about Broadway play tickets he took from an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer and personal trips he took to New York City and Costa Rica with his former friend Adam Corey, a lobbyist. The 2016 trips are under investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics and the FBI agent was gathering evidence in a federal public corruption investigation.

Gillum has said he is not the subject of the federal investigation, and he has countered with concerns that DeSantis isn’t being transparent about how he used his congressional office.

“What happened to the $145,000 in receipts of public taxpayer money that he has yet to reveal?” Gillum said Wednesday night.

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He was referring to a USA TODAY NETWORK — Florida report published last week detailing how DeSantis has refused to provide detailed receipts of his tax-funded congressional trips.  At least two of those trips were to New York to appear on Fox News, the campaign acknowledged after a reporter provided evidence of that travel.

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Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, speaks during a news conference along with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron, right, after an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) Wilfredo Lee, APU.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., resigned from Congress on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, to focus on his campaign for Florida governor full time. Here, he’s with his lieutenant governor candidate state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, left, and Gov. Rick Scott, right, during a rally Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. John Raoux, APRepublican Rep. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during the Freedom Tour, which also featured Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, right, and Jim Jordan, left, at the Fish House on Saturday, August 18, 2018. Gaetz is running for re-election in Florida’s 1st congressional district, which includes the panhandle. DeSantis, a gubernatorial candidate, currently represents Florida’s 6th congressional district, which includes Palm Coast and Daytona Beach on the east coast. Jordan founded the Freedom Caucus and represents Ohio’s 4th congressional district. He also is a candidate for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Jody Link/online@pnj.comRep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla.,left, joined by Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., hold a news conference to call for ending the secrecy surrounding a congressional fund that members of Congress have used to quietly settle sexual harassment complaints with taxpayer funds in the millions of dollars, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) ORG XMIT: DCSA112 J. Scott Applewhite, AP

  • Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis waves to supporters with his wife, Casey, at an election party after winning the Republican primary Aug. 28, 2018, in Orlando.1 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, chats with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron after an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)2 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, center, takes an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)3 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, foreground, heads to his car after an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)4 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, gets off an airboat with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron after a tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)5 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, waits for the start of a news conference after an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)6 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, speaks during a news conference along with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron, right, after an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)7 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, chats with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron during an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)8 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis smiles during an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)9 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, shares a laugh with Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron before an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)10 of 31
  • Republican candidate for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left, and Gladesman and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner Ron Bergeron take an airboat tour of the Florida Everglades, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)11 of 31
  • Candidate for Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters Saturday, June 9, 2018, during a rally in downtown Pensacola.12 of 31
  • U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., resigned from Congress on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, to focus on his campaign for Florida governor full time. Here, he's with his lieutenant governor candidate state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, left, and Gov. Rick Scott, right, during a rally Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, in Orlando, Fla.13 of 31
  • President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis during a rally Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Tampa.14 of 31
  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a debate Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, in Jacksonville.15 of 31
  • Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, right, speaks to supporters with his wife, Casey, at an election party in Orlando after winning the Republican primary on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018.16 of 31
  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at Versailles restaurant, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Miami.17 of 31
  • U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and Brian Mast take a boat ride out of Stuart, accompanied by Florida Sen. Joe Negron and other stakeholders, on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, to see and discuss the algae crisis in the St. Lucie River.18 of 31
  • U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and Brian Mast take a boat ride out of Stuart, accompanied by Florida Sen. Joe Negron and other stakeholders, on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, to see and discuss the algae crisis in the St. Lucie River.19 of 31
  • Alex Gillen (right of center), of Stuart, with Bullsugar.org, talks about algal blooms on the St. Lucie River with U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis (far right) during a boat ride out of downtown Stuart on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, on the St. Lucie River. DeSantis is campaigning for the Republican nomination for governor.20 of 31
  • Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during the Freedom Tour, which also featured Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, right, and Jim Jordan, left, at the Fish House on Saturday, August 18, 2018. Gaetz is running for re-election in Florida's 1st congressional district, which includes the panhandle. DeSantis, a gubernatorial candidate, currently represents Florida's 6th congressional district, which includes Palm Coast and Daytona Beach on the east coast. Jordan founded the Freedom Caucus and represents Ohio's 4th congressional district. He also is a candidate for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.21 of 31
  • Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis smiles during the Freedom Tour, which also featured Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, at the Fish House on Saturday, August 18, 2018. Gaetz is running for re-election in Florida's 1st congressional district, which includes the panhandle. DeSantis, a gubernatorial candidate, currently represents Florida's 6th congressional district, which includes Palm Coast and Daytona Beach on the east coast. Jordan founded the Freedom Caucus and represents Ohio's 4th congressional district. He also is a candidate for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.22 of 31
  • Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis waves to supporters during the Freedom Tour, which also featured Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, at the Fish House on Saturday, August 18, 2018. Gaetz is running for re-election in Florida's 1st congressional district, which includes the panhandle. DeSantis, a gubernatorial candidate, currently represents Florida's 6th congressional district, which includes Palm Coast and Daytona Beach on the east coast. Jordan founded the Freedom Caucus and represents Ohio's 4th congressional district. He also is a candidate for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.23 of 31
  • Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis greets supporters during the Freedom Tour, which also featured Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, at the Fish House on Saturday, August 18, 2018. Gaetz is running for re-election in Florida's 1st congressional district, which includes the panhandle. DeSantis, a gubernatorial candidate, currently represents Florida's 6th congressional district, which includes Palm Coast and Daytona Beach on the east coast. Jordan founded the Freedom Caucus and represents Ohio's 4th congressional district. He also is a candidate for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.24 of 31
  • U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters June 28, 2018, after a Florida Republican gubernatorial primary debate at the Republican Sunshine Summit in Kissimmee.25 of 31
  • Republican gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis, left, debates Adam Putnam on Aug. 8, 2018, in Jacksonville.26 of 31
  • President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Representative Ron DeSantis, Republican of Florida, and candidate for Florida Governor, as he speaks during a campaign rally at Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa, Fla. on July 31, 2018. 27 of 31
  • Donald Trump Jr., right, greets Florida gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis at a campaign rally Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in Orlando.28 of 31
  • Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla.,left, joined by Rep. Kathleen29 of 31
  • Vice President Mike Pence visited Kennedy Space Center30 of 31
  • House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ron DeSantis,31 of 31

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DeSantis, who in Congress argued that his fellow members should have to follow the same laws as the public, doesn’t have to release details of his use of tax money because Congress doesn’t have to follow the federal public records law.

He has declined USA TODAY NETWORK’s requests for more than a month to release detailed receipts that would show when, where and with whom he traveled, whether he traveled by plane or train, and first class or coach.  

“Both Andrew and I have received money to travel with the federal government,” DeSantis said during Wednesday night’s debate with Gillum. “The difference is I received my money legally and through my congressional office to travel from Florida to Washington and back again for two years, twice a week.”

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President Donald Trump is expected to attend a rally at Hertz Arena in Estero on Halloween, Oct. 31, 2018, to support Ron DeSantis.
Kinfay Moroti, KMOROTI@NEWS-PRESS.COM

In the broad line items DeSantis publicly disclosed when using the annual allocation known as the Members’ Representation Allowance, there were 71 “commercial transportation” expenses reported for the six years he served in Congress. The most expensive “commercial transportation” expense covered a 60-day period for $8,395, which could have covered a few first-class flights anywhere in the country or a dozen $700 trips back and forth from his district and office.

Without documents detailing how he spent the money, it’s hard to say how he traveled. But DeSantis did spend tax money on travel other than back and forth to his district.

His general expense reports show that he spent more than $1,000 on seven hotel stays since 2013, suggesting he was neither at his home in his district nor at his office in Washington. At least two of those hotel stays were expenses when he took two trips to New York before making Fox News appearances, for example. But without receipts, it’s unclear where he stayed on those trips.

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When challenged during the debates on this matter, DeSantis fought back and pointed to other members of the Florida delegation.

“Six years of congressional travel, every single member of Florida does the same thing. One hundred percent legal. I followed the law,” DeSantis said.

It is legal for members of Congress to use tax money for travel. However, DeSantis is not being transparent and is using a special consideration given to Congress that allows him to withhold what would be public records if he were in any other elected position. He does not have to release his office documents detailing travel, unlike Gillum, who released more than 800 pages in compliance with Florida’s public records law. 

“We know he used some of that money to travel to go to Fox News to run his campaign for governor,” Gillum said in one debate, making an assertion that is not known to be fact.

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Republican Ron DeSantis will face Democrat Andrew Gillum in Florida’s race for governor.
Wochit

DeSantis did use tax money to travel to New York to appear on Fox News, a network that helped increased his public profile in his run for governor. But the appearances he made at taxpayers’ expense occurred in July 2017 and October 2017, months before he announced he was a candidate for governor. On those shows, he talked about congressional matters, such as the Trump-Russia investigation and North Korea tensions. He did not talk about his political endeavors, according to transcripts from the shows.

As the subject of these receipts adds tension to the race for governor with less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Democrats also are throwing attacks that distort the facts of what DeSantis has done regarding his tax-funded travel.

Democrats have said DeSantis “abused congressional travel money” when making the trips for the Fox appearances. But members of Congress are allowed to use tax money to make media appearances in their official capacity if that is their “primary purpose of travel,” according to Courtney Parella, a spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration.

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Follow Ana Ceballos on Twitter: @anaceballos_

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