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    GOP: McBride TV spot is illegal

    Republicans contend that the union-backed ad amounts to an endorsement and violates campaign laws.

    By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 26, 2002

    Bill McBride owes his Democratic nomination for governor largely to a TV ad financed by a secret group of donors.

    But the secrecy was becoming a growing issue in his campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, and on Wednesday McBride said it was time to come clean. The union-backed group agreed.

    "We're getting questions about it, so let's go ahead and roll it out," McBride spokesman Alan Stonecipher said.

    McBride said as recently as last week that it wasn't up to him to release the list of people who donated to the FEA Quality Public Education Corp., an independent group established by officers of the state teachers union, the Florida Education Association.

    QPEC paid to produce and air a 30-second advertisement, which first appeared in July, that's widely credited with giving McBride the name recognition he needed to beat Janet Reno.

    The secrecy also gave Republicans the opening to suggest that McBride or his wife might have contributed their own money to the group, which was supposed to be independent of the campaign.

    "I don't know who has what in there, but Bill doesn't have any," Stonecipher said. McBride's wife, Alex Sink, didn't contribute either, he added.

    The GOP, however, maintains that secrecy is only part of the problem. The ad itself is an illegal campaign contribution, the party says.

    Last month, the Republican Party of Florida persuaded the Florida Elections Commission to investigate after the agency's executive director had concluded there was no legal basis to do so.

    Last week, attorneys for the McBride campaign and the FEA filed twin suits seeking to stop the investigation after the election commission sent McBride and FEA president Maureen Dinnen questionnaires asking whether McBride's campaign helped produce the commercial.

    If it did, that would violate campaign finance laws requiring third-party groups like QPEC to act independently of the campaign. The Republicans contend the corporation was set up simply to funnel money for the ad to McBride's campaign.

    "If he's so willing to give up the names of his donors, why won't he answer some simple questions?" asked Towson Frasier, a spokesman for the Republican Party. "The (commission) has tried to investigate, and the McBride campaign is blocking them every chance they get."

    QPEC has raised about $1.8-million since it was incorporated in early July, and all but several thousand dollars was spent on the ad, the group's attorney said. FEA and QPEC plan to identify the donors as soon as a list is compiled.

    Under federal tax laws governing political organizations, each donor who gave at least $200 would have become available in an IRS filing Oct. 15. The largest donor was the FEA itself, the union said.

    "This is another example of the Bush-Brogan people stirring the pot because they have a race on their hands, and they're in a panic, and they're trying to throw a little mud our way," FEA spokesman David Clark said.

    But the importance of the 30-second ad for McBride cannot be overstated. Three months ago, McBride was unknown to most Florida voters, overshadowed by Reno in the race for the Democratic nomination.

    Then, the week of July 16, the QPEC advertisement began airing across the state.

    The glowing ad -- depicting McBride as a son of small-town Florida, a courageous veteran of Vietnam and a successful lawyer who will improve education -- quickly provided the exposure he needed. The ad ran through much of August.

    After trailing Bush by double digits through the summer, various opinion polls now put the race at 10 points or less.

    Under state law, independent groups such as QPEC can run ads addressing an issue, not endorsing a candidate. The state Republican Party contends the biographical sketch amounts to an endorsement.

    "From coaching Little League to spearheading the United Way, he's served his community," the ad said. "Endorsed by Florida's teachers, as governor Bill McBride will reduce class size and improve our schools."

    But it doesn't say "Vote for McBride," an important distinction in the law, McBride's campaign says.

    If the Florida Elections Commission sides with the GOP, McBride would have to repay the money the group spent on it.

    Ron Meyer, an attorney for FEA and QPEC, filed a suit Friday with the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee to end the investigation, arguing that it violates free speech. McBride filed a similar suit with the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

    "We don't think that the First Amendment to the Constitution tolerates these kinds of fishing expeditions by the Florida Elections Commission, or anyone else," Meyer said. "That's it."

    On Wednesday, McBride campaigned in Miami, touring a school that had flunked under Bush's education plan, then meeting with African-American community leaders who had supported Reno in the primary.

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