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Probe moves closer to Harris

Two former aides have become part of the investigation into her dealings with a contractor convicted of bribery. She insists she did nothing wrong.

Published July 19, 2006

WASHINGTON — One former top aide to Rep. Katherine Harris has been questioned and a second soon will be amid an escalating inquiry into the relationship between the congresswoman and a defense contractor.

 Investigators with the Justice and Defense departments, along with the FBI and a federal grand jury, are examining Harris’ dealings with Mitchell Wade, who made illegal campaign contributions and later asked her to help secure $10-million in federal money for his company.

Former Harris chief of staff Fred Asbell is scheduled to be interviewed as soon as next week. Ed Rollins, her former top campaign consultant who conducted an internal inquiry into Harris and Wade, answered questions at the Justice Department in Washington two weeks ago.

“I can’t imagine they would want me to fly to Washington if it wasn’t about her,” Rollins said Wednesday. “It’s all about her. I don’t know about anything besides her.”

Harris, a Republican candidate for the Senate from Longboat Key, issued statements this week acknowledging that she turned over documents to federal agents in May but noted that authorities have not asked to speak with her.

“From the beginning, we have emphasized our willingness to continue to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice in gathering all of the facts necessary to quickly obtain a favorable resolution to this matter,” she wrote in a statement.

Harris said federal officials recently told her attorney that she was not a target of the investigation into Wade, who admitted bribing a California congressman who also pleaded guilty. But Harris refused to answer questions, including who told her she was not a target or when.

Former federal prosecutors say her vague statement doesn’t necessarily mean she’s in the clear.

“If she’s not a target, that’s nice, but that doesn’t mean she’s not under scrutiny,” said Ed Page, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Carlton Fields law firm in Tampa. “It’s sort of a play on words.”

Harris’ ties to Wade’s company, MZM, have been troubling her already rocky campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson since Wade pleaded guilty in February to bribing former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif.

Wade gave Harris tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions and paid for at least two dinners in Washington totaling about $6,000. Later, after one of her staffers went to work for Wade, Harris tried — but failed — to secure $10-million for Wade to build an intelligence facility in Sarasota.

Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said Wednesday he could not comment on Harris’ statement or any investigation.
But Rollins said he spoke to investigators about Harris’ campaign contributions, the money she requested for Wade’s company, the involvement of other staffers and interactions between Harris and Wade, which included more than just two dinners. He said investigators asked him for documents, but he did not keep any.

“They seemed to know everything I did and more,” he said.

The two-hour interview was with four people — two attorneys from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Public Integrity Division, an FBI agent and a lawyer from the Defense Investigative Service. Federal investigators asked to speak to Rollins several weeks ago, but he said he did not come to Washington from New York until they made the request for a third time and threatened him with a subpoena.

Reached at his Washington home this week, Asbell refused to say whom he was or wasn’t talking to but responded to Harris’ statement that she was not a target. “I don’t know where she is getting her information,” he said.

In the precise language of federal prosecutors, those who are questioned while a grand jury is investigating are designated either a “witness,” a “subject” or a “target,” said Todd Foster, a Tampa defense attorney and former federal prosecutor and FBI agent.

If federal authorities told Harris she was not a target, experts say they probably told her or her attorney that she was either a witness or a subject. A subject is someone whose actions are under scrutiny and who may become a target.

Harris refused to say whether she was told she was a witness or subject.

In documents released when Wade pleaded guilty, prosecutors wrote that Harris did not appear to be aware the contributions from Wade were illegal and that the donations came from an array of MZM employees who later were reimbursed by Wade — which made the donations illegal.

“As the Department of Justice noted in a press release on February 24, 2006, Mr. Wade never informed me about the reimbursement of any campaign contributions,” Harris wrote Tuesday. “I supported a project proposed by Mr. Wade and his company out of a desire to secure jobs and economic opportunities for the people of my district. Had I known of his illegal conduct, my campaign would not have accepted any contributions from Mr. Wade.”

Common Cause, a government-watchdog group, asked the Justice Department in May to investigate Harris’ dealings with Wade.
Harris’ campaign has paid more than $35,000 in the past three months to a prominent Washington lawyer, Benjamin Ginsberg, who specializes in campaign finance law, according to campaign finance records. Harris hired Ginsberg of the Patton Boggs law firm after she was publicly identified as having received illegal contributions from Wade.

Ginsberg did not return calls Wednesday.

Harris faces three candidates in the Sept. 5 primary. The winner will face Nelson in November.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at or 202-463-0576.

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 22:34:07]

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