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New gaffe, old Martinez defense

Sen. Mel Martinez turns to familiar words to explain his office's role in an unsigned memo on Terri Schiavo.

Published April 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - In the final, critical days of fall's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate from Florida, Mel Martinez's campaign sent out a flier accusing his conservative rival of catering to "the radical homosexual lobby."

Under blistering criticism, Martinez said he had not seen the flier before a staffer mailed it to voters; he promised he would never again be caught unaware of his staff's actions.

Just a few weeks later, he again blamed a staffer for a news release from his campaign that called federal agents "armed thugs" for seizing Elian Gonzalez from his Miami home. Martinez said he wasn't responsible for the "inappropriate" comment. "It was put out by someone in the office," he said.

Now it has happened again.

Martinez says that a senior staffer in his office wrote the unsigned memo that lauded the political advantages for Republican lawmakers to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case.

Martinez said he did not know the staffer wrote the memo; somehow, he said, it ended up in the pocket of his suit jacket, and he handed it to another senator without realizing what it was.

"As the senator, I am ultimately responsible for the work of my staff and the product that comes out of this office," Martinez said in the statement his office released at 10:20 p.m. Wednesday, after he was aboard a jet bound for Rome and the pope's funeral.

"I take full responsibility for this situation. This in no way (is) how I intend to conduct my business as a United States senator."

Tracking down the author of the memo has been the buzz in Washington for weeks. Democrats said it just proved the Republicans were trying to exploit Schiavo's life for political purposes; Republicans said Democrats wrote it themselves, to make it look like the majority party was playing politics.

It has been featured on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, dissected by bloggers seeking to divine its origin and challenged by conservative groups, which likened it to discredited documents about the president's National Guard service.

That it turned out to have come from Martinez's office, and that he blamed the huge misstep on a wayward staffer, did not play well. Democrats were gleeful and called for an investigation.

"There is a pattern where he regularly passes buck to staff," said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The American public is not filled with fools. Clearly he plays some role in this."

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the memo damages Martinez.

"Given that he had a similar excuse during the campaign, it's going to be a little bit harder for him to dance away from this. This is a pothole in the road that will cause some damage to alignment. It doesn't mean he can't recover."

* * *

As Republican leaders pushed the Schiavo bill through Congress during an extraordinary early morning session March 21, they faced criticism that their unprecedented actions were politically motivated.

The one-page memo gave credence to that: "This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," it said. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."

Martinez sponsored the Schiavo bill in the Senate and was a key negotiator in helping broker a deal with the House. When the memo surfaced a few weeks ago, Martinez repeatedly said he had never seen the memo before it became public. Late Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called to make sure that Martinez knew that he had been the one who handed Harkin a copy of the memo on March 9.

Martinez said in his statement Wednesday night that he had meant to reach for a different Schiavo document and had never seen the memo he handed Harkin. He said he didn't even realize what it was until Harkin brought it to his attention Wednesday.

"Sen. Harkin was kind enough today to call me and tell me this afternoon that he believes the memo he received was given to him by me," Martinez said. "Until this afternoon, I had never seen it and had no idea a copy of it had ever been in my possession."

Martinez called a meeting with senior staff and asked about the memo. His counsel, Brian Darling, later admitted his role to chief of staff John Little. Darling, 39, resigned. He did not return phone calls Thursday.

A memo typically would have to be approved by a supervisor or chief of staff before being given to a senator to refer to or hand out. But Martinez spokeswoman Kerry Feehery said no other staffer knew about the memo, including chief of staff Little and legislative director Tripp Baird, Darling's boss.

Feehery and Little refused to answer any questions Thursday, because an investigation was ongoing - possibly into whether Darling gave the memo to any other Senate offices.

The memo specifically targeted Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who had not embraced Martinez's original bill to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube.

Nelson eventually supported the final version in a speech on the Senate floor - it turns out, after Martinez passed the memo saying the issue could be used against his fellow senator, who faces re-election next year.

Martinez tried to call Nelson Wednesday evening to apologize but reached his chief of staff.

"Mel Martinez has been a personal friend of mine for 27 years," Nelson said. "I accept his apology."

* * *

For a freshman senator, Martinez's first three months in office have been heady. The affable former federal housing secretary has become known as someone easy to work with and has been befriended by Senate leaders.

He has kept company with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican. He introduced and passed his first bill - the Schiavo bill. He was selected over others to go to Rome for the pope's funeral.

But he is still learning how Congress operates.

"This is where the fact that he's a freshman may be part of the problem," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. "Things happen fast. People hand you all kinds of things."

Lawyer Bill McCollum, the target of the fliers in the Senate primary, said Thursday that Martinez's style has always been to delegate to staff.

"That's the way it works in corporations," he said. "I personally delegate a lot of things but not in certain areas. I'm a little more hands on."

Several Democratic senators were skeptical about Martinez's explanation of the Schiavo memo. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who had originally asked for a Senate investigation into who wrote the memo, said the Senate should now conduct an inquiry to determine whether Martinez knew about it. It's unclear what penalties - if any - it could impose.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, asked what he made of Martinez's explanation that he knew nothing about a memo that ended up in Martinez's suit pocket, shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands.

"If that's what he says, that's what he says."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 8, 2005, 00:34:10]

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