TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- After prompting a debate about political publicity and gifts, Gov. Rick Scott will be able to provide recorded greetings that travelers will hear when they ride shuttle buses at Tampa International Airport, a state ethics panel decided Friday.
The Florida Commission on Ethics approved an advisory opinion that said such messages would not violate bans on gifts or expenditures by lobbyists. Scott's acting general counsel asked for an opinion last month, in part because the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which includes the airport, has a lobbyist registered to work on executive-branch issues.
"In this case, everything seems fine, both legally and practically,'' said commission General Counsel C. Christopher Anderson, who wrote the opinion.
The Scott administration request, however, touched off a broader discussion about the value of publicity that politicians can receive and when that publicity turns into an improper gift.
Commissioner Edwin Scales III, a Key West attorney, said he was concerned about a "slippery slope" of characterizing appearances and other types of publicity as gifts to elected officials. As examples, he pointed to a speech that Attorney General Pam Bondi will give to the Florida Bar or greetings that mayors often give at events in their communities.
Anderson said such questions have to be considered case by case. But he also said some situations could become a "parade of horribles,'' with people trying to ingratiate themselves with politicians by providing free publicity.
The commission in 2005 scuttled a plan by BellSouth Telecommunications Inc. to invite state lawmakers to make public-service announcements for the Lifeline and Link-Up programs, which help low-income people afford telephone service. In an opinion at the time, the commission said public officials would "receive free exposure, notwithstanding that it is in the furtherance of a worthy cause."
As another potential scenario, commission Chairman Robert Sniffen said Friday that the gift ban could be violated if economic-development messages were orchestrated to help candidates in areas of the state where they want to increase their exposure. But he also said "garden-variety advantages of incumbency" would not be violations.
In a May 22 letter, Scott's office said it didn't think recording messages for the airport would violate the lobbyist gift and expenditure bans. But it also sought the opinion because it said "absolute clarity on this issue will help advance joint governmental efforts to promote Florida tourism and the economy.''
The letter said an airport official asked the governor to record greetings for buses that shuttle passengers between the main hub and terminals.
According to the letter, arriving passengers would hear, "This is Florida Governor Rick Scott, and I'd like to welcome you to Tampa Bay, a great place to live, work and play. Thank you for choosing Tampa International Airport. Enjoy your stay."
Departing passengers would hear a message thanking them for their stay and saying "we hope you'll return soon."
Anderson said one factor in the opinion is that the airport would not have to spend money on such expenses as air time or production. Scott would record the messages at the governor's office before sending them to the airport.
"The News Service of Florida contributed to this report."
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