I'm starting to wonder if Broward Undersheriff Tom Wheeler and BSO Lt. David Benjamin went to local airports to thumb rides to football games with wealthy politically connected folks.
I've confirmed that Wheeler and Benjamin -- along with Broward County Judge John "Jay" Hurley -- flew to Tallahassee for the September 7 Florida State-Miami football game on a private jet owned by the controversial mega-wealthy Delray Beach military contractor Harry Sargeant.
Sargeant, a noted political "bundler," is likely the second-largest political contributor, behind Scott Rothstein, to Florida Gov. and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist. His brother and partner, Daniel Sargeant, was a contributor to Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti's campaign.
Sargeant resigned his post as finance chair of the Florida Republican Party after he was embroiled in a federal criminal case involving a Jordanian national employed by Sargeant was accused of illegally funneling campaign cash to Crist and John McCain, among others. Sargeant, dubbed a "war profiteer" by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, has also garnered controversy when he was sued by Jordanians accusing him of using bribes in connection to his billion-dollar-plus contract supplying fuel to troops in Iraq.
Crist has been a frequent passenger on jets owned by Sargeant as well, but he has insisted that he paid for the flights with personal checks (though he hasn't offered documents to prove it, saying he doesn't know where they are and that he doesn't have the canceled checks). In June, the Florida Ethics Commission declined to investigate those flights.
It's not known whether Wheeler or Benjamin paid for the flights or other amenities they may have received on the trip to Tallahassee, but neither of the two men
disclosed the Sargeant flight in state forms that would have been due on December 31. The trip may have also been in violation of the BSO gift policy, which forbids gifts given due to a deputy's "BSO association" or received from persons "whose vocations may profit from official information."
That would seem to apply in spades to Rothstein -- and we know that Wheeler and Benjamin took at least two trips on the Ponzi schemer's Gulfstream V, including a trip to New York City for a Jets-Miami game.
After getting a tip on the Sargeant flight, I questioned Judge Hurley and he confirmed that he rode on the jet for the game and that Wheeler and Benjamin were also on board. It was a bit of a coincidence, he said, since he didn't know Benjamin and said that he's not close with Wheeler, though they were in the same frat at FSU. Sargeant and Crist are also Pike brothers of Hurley and Wheeler.
Hurley said that after arriving at the Boca Raton Airport, Sargeant had all three of his planes awaiting guests for travel to Tallahassee. He said was assigned not the largest jet -- a massive $21 million Hawker 4000 -- but to one of the smaller ones, either Sargeant's Hawker 800 or his Raytheon Premier.
"Harry just said, 'You want to a ride to the game,' and I said okay," Hurley told me. "When I got to the airport there were three airplanes on the tarmac. I had no idea who on the airplane and when I walk in I see Wheeler and a guy I didn't know who I now know was Benjamin. I see Wheeler once a year [at frat reunions] wheter I need to or not. It's not like we're chums. We don't socialize at all."
Hurley said that when they arrived at the Tallahassee airport, he went his own way and Wheeler, Benjamin, Sargeant and the others went off in a group.
"I had to rent my own car," said Hurley. "Wherever they went I wasn't invited. I wasn't part of their plans. They went off in a shuttle bus. I stayed at my own hotel. Those guys stayed in a nice hotel I think. I stayed in the Cabin Lodge."
Hurley said he paid for everything, including his ticket, on his own. When I asked him if he paid for the flight, he said, "I think I paid Sargeant 100 bucks, I don't remember honestly how much."
How did he pay?
"By check," Hurley said. "I believe I did. I don't recall. Now you have me worried about how I paid. I don't know if my secretary sent a check."
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Then he said he wasn't sure he paid at all. If he didn't, it would seem a sure violation of state ethics laws, which demand that elected officials disclose any gifts that have a value of $100 or more. But Hurley may have a loophole.
When elected officials fly by private plane, the state demands only that they pay the equivalent of what a commercial airline would charge. Hurley points out that his father, J.J. Hurley, is a veteran pilot for Delta Airlines and that because of that he flies free, but for taxes.
"I can fly to Tallahassee for $40 so would I have to report it?" he asked.
Neither Wheeler and Benjamin -- both of whom are under internal investigation for Rothstein-related matters -- are speaking publicly about recent controversies, so it's not known if they claim to have paid for the flight. It's also not known how they procured and paid for their tickets, their room, or travel costs once they arrived in Tallahassee. A message left for Harry Sargeant today has yet to be returned.