tampabay.com

Briber paid for 2nd meal for Harris

The Senate candidate didn't pay for her share of another meal with a contractor. A spokesman calls it an oversight.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published May 21, 2006


Rep. Katherine Harris wound up embroiled in a firestorm last month after acknowledging she had a $2,800 meal with a defense contractor convicted of bribery.

Now it turns out that wasn't her first fancy meal with corrupt contractor Mitchell Wade. Harris had dined with Wade previously at the same tony Washington restaurant and failed to pay her share as required by congressional rules, her campaign acknowledged Friday.

"She takes responsibility for the oversight that there was no reimbursement," campaign spokesman Chris Ingram said.

Ingram said the Republican Senate candidate has made a charitable donation equivalent to her share of that meal, but he could provide no details. He said he did not know how much that meal cost, how much Harris donated to charity or what the charity was.

Harris vehemently denied any wrongdoing in a sometimes heated Political Connections interview airing 11 a.m. today on Bay News 9. She did not address the second meal in that taped interview but gave what apparently is her most extensive public response to the scandal involving Wade.

"I've done nothing wrong. The Justice Department has not asked me any questions. I simply had the opportunity to have a naval intelligence program in my district," Harris said in the interview. Starting Monday, it can be seen on channel 340 Tampa Bay on Demand.

Harris' campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has been dogged by her ties to Wade and his company, MZM, which is at the center of a bribery scandal that led to the imprisonment of former Rep. Duke Cunningham of California.

In March 2004, Wade funneled $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Harris, who says she had no idea he illegally reimbursed MZM employees and spouses for those donations to her.

Harris' former chief campaign adviser, Ed Rollins, said in a phone interview that those illegal campaign contributions came when Harris and Wade first dined together at the posh restaurant Citronelle.

After conducting an internal investigation into Harris' ties to MZM, Rollins said he and other advisers, including her lawyer, urged Harris to drop her Senate bid out of concern that she might be vulnerable to federal corruption charges. He said he did not believe Harris intentionally broke any laws.

"But her story kept changing," said Rollins, who said he thoroughly investigated her role in the scandal in hopes of proving her innocence. "Our great concern was that you get into trouble when you don't tell the same story twice ... Maybe you don't think you did anything wrong, but then maybe you start getting questioned about it and so forth, and you may perjure yourself."

Wade's February plea agreement says that in March 2004, he gave Harris the illegal contributions because he "thought Representative B (Harris) had the ability to request appropriations funding that would benefit MZM and that Representative B would be an advocate for MZM and its existing facilities," the court papers say.

A year after those donations, in March 2005, came the second Citronelle dinner that cost $2,800. Prosecutors say Wade and Harris discussed the possibility of MZM hosting a fundraiser for Harris and of her helping obtain funding for a naval counterintelligence program in her Sarasota area district. She submitted that funding request a few weeks later, though it was never approved.

Harris has since acknowledged that despite House rules allowing no gifts to members of more than $50, Wade picked up a $2,800 tab. She recently donated $100 to a Jacksonville church, saying that covered her share of the tab.

"Do I look like I ate $2,800 in one sitting?" the petite congresswoman quipped on Political Connections. "I always get a couple of appetizers and something to drink."

Much of the Citronelle tab was for bottles of wine that Wade took home with him, she said. The restaurant has said no one ever leaves with unopened bottles of wine, but Harris dismissed that.

"I'm sure it doesn't match the laws (taking wine to go), but he actually got into an argument with the waiter and left with bottles of uncorked wine that evening," Harris said of Wade.

Citronelle director Carl Halverson responded with incredulity.

"We are one of the top five restaurants in America. Why would we jeopardize our liquor license for the sake of selling a couple bottles of wine?" he asked.

Rollins said that at their second Citronelle dinner in March 2005, Wade talked about organizing a $200,000 fundraiser for Harris. He said he and her campaign lawyer, Ben Ginsberg, fretted that prosecutors might interpret Harris' seeking funding on behalf of MZM - after a $2,800 meal and the promise of a $200,000 fundraiser - an illegal quid pro quo.

"Unlike Cunningham, I don't think she set out to violate the law, but I think she was very careless," said Rollins, who noted that he never could find any evidence MZM intended to put a facility in her district. "She heard whatever she wanted to hear, but we could find no evidence whatsoever that this was a project going into her district."

Ginsberg did not return calls for this story.

Ronald Reagan's former political director and a renowned Republican strategist, Rollins has hammered Harris since quitting her campaign in late March. He said he decided to stop keeping his mouth shut after she started publicly criticizing other former campaign staffers who had worked tirelessly for her.

Asked whether she should have been more cautious about MZM's contributions after her 1998 campaign for secretary of state was engulfed in controversy over illegal contributions from an insurance company called Riscorp, Harris noted that Nelson also received illegal Riscorp contributions in 1998.

"You have fundraisers all the time, and people bring you checks. There's no way you can know if at a future date they're going to be reimbursed," Harris said. "Bill Nelson has received millions of dollars in contributions and hundreds of thousands from defense contractors -- and some that have been in trouble. So maybe the focus needs to be a little more broad-based and not just on me. We've not done anything wrong and those who have done something wrong have been punished."

Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said Harris "has no credibility whatsoever" and is "trying to deflect attention from her own activities."

Three little-known Republicans are challenging Harris for the Republican Senate nomination: Tampa businessman LeRoy Collins Jr., Orlando lawyer Will McBride and Pinellas County developer Peter Monroe.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.