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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman August 31, 2010

Alan Grayson attacks Daniel Webster's 'stairway to nowhere'

Central Florida U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson is digging on some 1970s Led Zeppelin in his first ad attacking Republican opponent Daniel Webster.

The ad is called "Dan Webster's Stairway to Nowhere." See where this is going, Zeppelin fans?

It opens with someone ripping off Jimmy Page's recognizable guitar introduction to "Stairway to Heaven." A narrator talks over a black-and-white image of Webster, a longtime state legislator and former House speaker.

"When career politician Daniel Webster became speaker of the House, he wasted $32,000 of our money on a spiral staircase for his office," the narrator says, before moving on to a claim that he used tax money for private flights.

The ad then finishes with a spin off of Robert Plant's vocals.

"And he's charged us for a stairway to nowhere."

To be honest, it's a pretty poor rendition.

But we're PolitiFact Florida, not American Idol, so we'll stick to the factual claims in the ad -- specifically about the stairwell.

Stepping stones to the staircase

Webster was elected to the state House in 1980. In 1996, he became the first Republican state House speaker in more than 100 years after the GOP seized power.

That also put him in charge of improvements and renovations to House offices and facilities. Each new speaker traditionally has made changes, upgrades, or renovations. In 1999, Speaker John Thrasher, now a state senator and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, approved nearly $7 million for the House chamber -- now adorned in mahogany -- the Speaker's Office, and House office building.

In 2002, leaders of the House and Senate spent about $1.5 million on furniture, structural changes, even a private bathroom. On the other hand, former Speaker Allan Bense spent only about $1,500 on changes in 2004, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

According to newspaper accounts Webster spent about $100,000 in taxpayer dollars on improvements to House facilities in his first months as speaker, including $31,983 on a spiral staircase.

The staircase connected the Republican Majority Office on the Capitol's third floor with the Speaker's Office above it on the fourth floor. The staircase was intended to make it easier to move back and forth between the two offices -- namely, it allowed legislators and Webster as speaker to avoid walking through the public hallways filled with lobbyists, reporters and members of the public.

The staircase "will allow us to better coordinate things between the Speaker's Office and the Majority Office," Webster said at the time. He also noted that he took the idea from Democrats, who previously had drawn up plans for a spiral staircase of their own.

It was built in a spiral style because it was the only way it could work given the space.

The Grayson ad includes an image of an elaborate white spiral staircase to help make its point about Webster.

But that's not the Webster staircase, said Todd Reid, staff director for the Florida House Majority Office.

The staircase was closed off in 2006 during more than $500,000 of renovations ordered by then-Speaker Marco Rubio. The stairway's fourth-floor landing became the new offices of the speaker's chief of staff.

"It was a standard black metal staircase," Reid said. "It certainly wasn't heavy on the accouterments."

Reid described the staircase as noisy and said whenever someone walked up or down it, people could hear the staircase rattling from both offices.

He said the bottom half of the staircase remains in place; a closet was built around it. 

"If you were in Tallahassee, I'd take you in to see it," Reid told PolitiFact Florida.

Featured Fact-check

Your humble fact-checker didn't have time to jump in a car for the five-hour trip to Tallahassee, but we were able to send the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald's Lee Logan for an exclusive tour.

Cribs: Staircase to Nowhere-edition

Logan filed the following report, complete with a picture.

Behind a door labeled "No Entry" in the House Majority Office is the famed Webster staircase. The small closet without lights is used so rarely that Reid had to hunt down someone in the House Sergeant at Arms office to get a key to the door.

The bottom half of the black spiral staircase is still bolted to the floor. (Stairs are simple black metal, with a black metal railing.) Pieces of the top half are also in the closet, including a large piece that rests on top of the lower portion.

The ceiling of the closet is now covered over with concrete, forming the floor of the chief of staff's office on the fourth floor. Reid says it's unlikely the stairway would be re-installed because the fourth floor spot is "prime real estate" -- now the House speaker and his chief of staff have direct access to one another through a door.

Before Rubio made the space into the chief of staff's office, the staircase came up through a hole in the floor and emptied into a common area that also housed a few supplies.

Reid said the closet could be used for supplies if the stairs were removed. But he speculated that they weren't taken out because they're simply too big. Also, a speaker sometime in the future might find a use for the stairs.

The stairs were used "irregularly," Reid said, usually on peak days when the Capitol was crowded. He also recalled former Gov. Jeb Bush occasionally using the stairs.

Currently, if a staffer (not Joe Public) wanted to go from the Majority Office to the Speaker's Office, he or she could go up a back stairwell and cut through the Member's Lounge, which requires a key card and is reserved for lawmakers. Speaker Larry Cretul has said staffers can cut through the area if they don't loiter or disturb the lawmakers.

Our ruling

Grayson's ad is unintentionally ironic in that Webster's "stairway to nowhere" actually now is a stairway to nowhere, as it's bolted to the ground of a seldom-used closet. The stairway leads to a concrete ceiling, which now serves as the floor of an office above. Those changes were made by Marco Rubio in 2006. The stairs haven't been used since then.

But that's not how Webster left it. When he became speaker in 1996, Webster did what most every speaker has done in recent times -- he spent taxpayer money on House renovations. The amount has varied wildly over the years depending on the size of the renovation.

Among the $100,000 or so Webster spent, he allocated just under $32,000 for a plain spiral staircase to internally link the Speaker's Office with the House Republican Offices below.

While Grayson's ad is correct on the reported dollar amount and the type of staircase, we think it's slightly misleading for two reasons. First, the imagery displayed suggests an ornate staircase when the staircase is far from ornate and only a spiral staircase by necessity. Second, it fails to provide the context that most every speaker spends taxpayer dollars on renovations, and several spent more than Webster. We rate the claim Mostly True.

Now cue the Led Zeppelin ...

(Update Sept. 1: We reached out to the Webster campaign before publishing this story via phone and e-mail, but did not hear back. After publication, Webster spokesman Brian Graham said in an e-mail that the staircase actually cost less than published reports. The original construction contract was for $28,126. The state paid even less, $22,242, Graham said).

(Update Sept. 3: We noticed that the Grayson ad has been removed from his You Tube web page. We're not sure why).

Our Sources

Alan Grayson campaign, "Dan Webster's Stairway to Nowhere," Aug. 27, 2010

Alan Grayson campaign, interview with Sam Drzymala, Aug. 30, 2010

House Majority Office, interview with Todd Reid, Aug. 31, 2010

St. Petersburg Times, "Rubio already changes House," Aug. 31, 2006

Miami Herald, "House leaders justify spending to remodel," Feb. 13, 1997, accessed via Nexis

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "House Speaker orders $30,000 spiral stairs," Feb. 25, 1997, accessed via Nexis

St. Petersburg Times, "House Speaker's new stairs help him sidestep questions," Feb. 25, 1997, accessed via Times archives

Florida Times-Union, "Speaker's spending draws scrutiny," Dec. 8, 2006, accessed via Nexis

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Alan Grayson attacks Daniel Webster's 'stairway to nowhere'

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