After Ron DeSantis, an avid golfer, moved into the Florida governor’s mansion in 2019, workers installed a golf simulator worth tens of thousands of dollars in the private pool cabana so he could practice his game.
But DeSantis did not pay for the simulator. Neither did the state government. Instead, it was funded by a wealthy donor and prominent businessman, Morteza Hosseini, according to four sources familiar with the matter and state government records.
The donation, previously undisclosed, was never reported as a gift by DeSantis, the top rival to former President Donald Trump in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Florida mostly allows officials to receive gifts as long as they are disclosed and won’t influence their official work.
However, the golf simulator transaction appears to have been structured to avoid Florida’s rigorous ethical disclosure requirements, said two governance experts in Florida. A third expert characterized the donation as appropriate under state laws.
Florida state law requires public officials to file quarterly reports listing all gifts received with a value over $100. But DeSantis has never filed a gift disclosure in his four and half years in office, said Lynn Blais, administrator of the Florida Commission on Ethics. The commission oversees compliance by state officials with government ethics laws.
"In my mind, it subverts the principle of why we require gifts to be disclosed," said Ben Wilcox, research director of Florida Integrity, a government watchdog group.
Hosseini, chief executive of Florida developer ICI Homes Residential Holdings and a close ally of DeSantis, said in a statement that the donation was "entirely permissible under Florida law."
A spokesperson for DeSantis said: “As with all donations, it was accepted and coordinated by staff and approved by legal counsel. Donations to the residence and grounds have been received over many administrations. It will remain in the state's possession for the use of first families, their guests, and staff as it is now.”
The golf simulator was technically donated to the Mansion Commission, a state agency that oversees the governor’s mansion, according to records related to the donation, including correspondence between DeSantis’ office and Hosseini. The records were received in a freedom-of-information request.
James Uthmeier, at the time DeSantis’ deputy general counsel, said in a Sept. 13, 2019, letter to Hosseini that the simulator would be considered "on loan" to the Mansion Commission for an "undisclosed term" and would be returned to Hosseini "immediately upon request," the records said.
Uthmeier wrote that the loan was “permissible” according to state law and the Governor’s Ethics Code. Uthmeier, now DeSantis’ chief of staff, did not respond to a request for comment.
Reuters could not determine who structured the donation as a loan.
The simulator, like other items loaned to the mansion, is considered state property, according to the Florida law setting up the Mansion Commission. DeSantis, like other governors, cannot take items from the mansion after leaving office without the commission’s approval. Florida’s Department of Management Services, which oversees the commission, did not respond to a request for comment.
"It appears to me that would still be a gift," since it was intended for DeSantis’ personal use, said Barbara Petersen, director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group. Uthmeier’s letter appeared written to "give the governor cover" for not reporting it as a gift, she said.
While DeSantis is known for his political fundraising prowess, the disclosure of the golf simulator shows that he benefited personally from at least one significant donation from a staunch ally in the Florida business community.
Hosseini and his firm have contributed more than $240,000 to DeSantis’ campaigns, finance records show. The developer has been a close adviser for DeSantis, who appointed him to the board of trustees of the University of Florida. Hosseini now serves as the board’s chairman. His company is one of Florida’s largest home builders.
In his statement to Reuters, Hosseini said that the simulator "was provided to the residence gym, as things have been in the past, for the use of the family, guests, and staff, during this and subsequent administrations."
'We showed him how to use it'
The simulator was manufactured by aboutGOLF, according to one of the workers who installed it. The device can allow DeSantis to play a "virtual" golf round with a high-resolution widescreen that gives precise video of courses played by professionals, and a computer that calculates what the golf ball would do after each real swing.
An aboutGOLF representative said the company’s management declined to comment.
The simulator was fitted in DeSantis’s cabana months after the Washington Post reported that then-president Trump had installed a high-end golf simulator in the White House, replacing a model used by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Trump paid for his own golf simulator, according to the Washington Post. DeSantis, however, does not have comparable wealth, state disclosure records show. DeSantis sold his own home in Florida for less than $500,000 shortly after moving into the governor’s mansion, and his most recent financial disclosure, filed in December 2021, says his net worth was $319,987, including his retirement funds.
The records show that law enforcement cleared two "Golf Simulator Installers" to do work in the governor’s mansion after the pair were cleared in a June 2019 background check, less than six months after DeSantis, a former congressman, became governor.
One of the installers, Ronald Watson, told Reuters that he and a colleague traveled to the state capital of Tallahassee from Ohio to install the device, which he said was shipped by truck and took up one wall of the governor’s cabana.
Watson did not remember the specific "package" but said it was a "widescreen" – a flat-screen version of the company’s products. An aboutGOLF list of products says those models start at $46,500.
Watson said he met DeSantis briefly after the installation. "We showed him how to use it, and he left right after that," Watson said.
The simulator was included in an inventory of donations to the mansion since 1957 that was also provided to Reuters in response to its public records request.
Wilcox, of Florida Integrity, said he believes the simulator should have been disclosed as a gift. “It may not have broken Florida ethics laws, but it’s against the whole principle of the gift disclosure requirement."
Caroline Klancke, executive director of the nonpartisan Florida Ethics Institute, disagreed. The gift disclosure rule probably wouldn’t apply in this case under a strict reading of rules around donating to state agencies, she said.
Because it was directed to the mansion commission, the donation “could fall within a loophole or exemption” in the gifts law, she said. She noted that the law also prohibits certain people, including lobbyists and state vendors, from making any gifts. Generally, though, the goal of the law is transparency for the public, she said.
The list of items donated to the mansion in 2019 also includes a treadmill at the cabana. According to the list, the “acquisition cost” of both the treadmill and the golf simulator are listed as $1. Reuters could not determine who donated the treadmill.