Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was easily re-elected to a second term, is defending her decisions to take free trips to conferences and socialize with attorneys that represent corporations under investigation by other states.
Gift disclosure records show that in the last four years Bondi accepted more than $51,000 worth of meals, hotels and free trips — to conferences in locales ranging from California, Wyoming and Michigan as well as for trips to Mexico and Israel with other attorneys generals.
The trips have been scrutinized by news outlets including The New York Times, which has noted that the one of the main outfits paying the bill for many of the trips, the Republican Attorneys General Association, receives money to pay for the trips from corporate sponsors.
The Times reported this week that Bondi allowed a Washington, D.C., attorney with the firm of Dickstein Shapiro to recuperate from surgery at Bondi's house. The newspaper reported the stay came after Lori Kalani and two others lawyers from her firm flew on a chartered flight with Bondi to a conference being held by the GOP organization at a resort hotel located on Mackinac Island in Michigan.
Dickstein Shapiro has represented companies that came under scrutiny by other states and it also represented companies involved in a dispute over hotel taxes. One email obtained by the Times showed Kalani pointing out to one of Bondi's top attorneys how judges in Florida had ruled for the companies. Bondi's office in 2013 dismissed a case brought by previous Attorney General Bill McCollum against online travel companies. Another chain of emails show that Kalani also played a role in helping schedule a profile of Bondi for a trade magazine.
A spokeswoman for Bondi confirmed Kalani stayed at Bondi's home. But she did not explain why the offer was made to let Kalani stay there or when Bondi first met Kalani.
"Attorney General Bondi does not allow personal friendships to affect her objectivity in handling the issues that come before her office," said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Meale. "As with all matters before her office, her only consideration is what is best for Floridians."
Kalani did not return a phone call to her office.
Jessica Medeiros Garrison, executive director for the Republican Attorneys General Association, said that the groups pays for expenses of its members to help with "national fundraising" and that it does this in "full compliance" with federal and state laws. IRS records show that this year the group has accepted money from Florida companies such as U.S. Sugar and a sister company of Florida Power & Light.
During a campaign stop four days before Election Day, Bondi defended the trips she has taken, including a March trip to Mexico paid by the Conference of Western Attorneys General. She said the Mexico trip — organized by California Attorney General Kamala Harris— was a "dangerous trip" that Florida law-enforcement officials didn't want her to take. Kalani also was on the trip.
Records filed with the state show that Bondi had three meals during the trip that each cost in excess of $100 and that she was provided with an interpreter at a cost of $188.37.
"It was a bipartisan trip of five attorneys general, it was a dangerous trip but a worthwhile trip," said Bondi, who said that during the trip she talked about drug cartels and drove hours to visit a safe house for victims of human trafficking. "I wouldn't have changed anything I did."