Harris: Fund request not a political favor
Responding to questions about her support for a defense contractor's project, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris releases dozens of documents - and a denial.
By ANITA KUMAR
Published March 3, 2006
WASHINGTON - Rep. Katherine Harris did not initially ask for $10-million in federal dollars on behalf of a defense contractor who wanted to build an intelligence facility in Sarasota.
It was a significant enough project, though, that she included it in an addendum sent three weeks later last spring.
The change came after Harris had dinner at a Washington, D.C., restaurant with the contractor, Mitchell Wade, and after he and his employees at MZM Inc. called Harris' office numerous times to lobby for the project.
The year before, Wade and his employees had given her $50,000 in campaign contributions.
Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, released a flood of documents Thursday evening as she tried to combat questions about her actions days after federal prosecutors publicly linked her to Wade, who is at the center of a bribery case.
The Longboat Key Republican consulted an attorney and campaign staffers before making the decision to release a statement and all 58 pages of her funding requests for last year.
"I requested a $10-million appropriation for the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Services project because I thought it would bring new jobs to Sarasota," Harris wrote. "I never requested funding for this project in exchange for any contributions, but rather to bring more high-skill, high-wage jobs to the region."
Prosecutors have said Harris did not appear to be aware that the contributions from Wade were illegal. She said her office has not been contacted by investigators. Despite Harris' new round of trouble, there were signs this week that the Republican Party is finally starting to get behind her campaign, which has been marred for months by weak fundraising and revolving staffers.
"These stories have not had that kind of effect, that she's damaged goods or something," Florida Sen. Mel Martinez said of the publicity involving the MZM controversy.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, head of a powerful committee that assists Republicans running for the Senate, has refused for months to get behind Harris. But she invited Harris to the weekly lunch of Republican senators Tuesday. The next day, the Senate leadership team - including Majority Leader Bill Frist - hosted a fundraiser for Harris in Washington.
"She had a slow start, which she admitted, but she seems to be picking it up, which is giving some people some encouragement around here," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the third-ranking Senate Republican.
Harris' latest problems began Friday, when Wade pleaded guilty to paying more than $1-million in bribes to a former California congressman. He also admitted he illegally contributed thousands of dollars to Harris.
Court documents say Wade took Harris, described as Representative B, to dinner early last year to discuss a possible Harris fundraiser and MZM's hope for a facility in Sarasota.
Wade later prepared a proposal for the program and submitted it to Harris' staff.
On March 18, Harris sent her original request for $15.8-million for five defense projects to Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Indian Shores Republican who heads the defense appropriations subcommittee.
Later, after the deadline to submit projects had passed, she sent a second brief letter on April 26 asking for an undisclosed amount of money for the "US Naval Criminal Investigative Service Airbourne Capability to support counter intelligence and combatting terrorism missions."
She asked that the project be considered third in priority, but only the first two on her list were funded.
Young, who said he doesn't remember the request, said he gets so many lists that members line up to hand him envelopes on the House floor. His committee received 3,570 requests from 392 members last year - an average of nine projects per member. Most were not funded, with no explanation.
"We get so many requests, we just can't do them all," said Young, who won't release the lists as a matter of practice but called Harris on Thursday to encourage her to release her list.
Harris' statement does not explain why she added MZM's request to her list. But she said it had nothing to with the $50,000 that MZM employees, their spouses and the company's political action committee gave her in 2004.
Prosecutors say $32,000 of the $50,000 she received was given to her through employees who were reimbursed by Wade, making it illegal.
Harris initially refused to return the MZM money, but at her staff's urging eventually donated the money to charity.
Privately, Harris has spent much of the week struggling with how to handle the MZM scandal. But publicly, she impressed many of the would-be Republican colleagues who were introduced to her at various events.
Attendees at the Wednesday fundraiser at the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Harris made a good impression during her brief chat: articulate, attractive and aggressive.
"I remember thinking as she stood there speaking, I'm glad this lady is not after my seat," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Lott's political action committee has given her $10,000, the maximum allowed.
The Senate leadership team hosted the fundraiser but only one member of the team, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, attended. Eight other senators attended.
Martinez, who was also a co-host, said about 25 to 40 people attended the fundraiser. Morgan Dobbs, Harris' campaign spokeswoman, described the turnout as more than 50 people but did not say how much money was raised.
Just a few months ago, Republican leaders in Washington and Tallahassee were searching for alternatives to Harris for the Senate campaign.
Martinez said he and others, including Gov. Jeb Bush, are not searching for a new candidate even as the latest crisis renews second-guessing about her viability and whether she will stay in the race. The deadline for qualifying for the ballot is May 12.
"She is the Republican nominee," Martinez said.
Times staff writers Wes Allison, Bill Adair, Joni James and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202 463-0576.
[Last modified March 3, 2006, 02:15:34]
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