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For GOP mantle, dirt flew furiously

A story taking aim at Charlie Crist’s character began to emerge before the primary … but not fast enough for those who were divulging it. Now, take a look behind the story.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published September 16, 2006


The secret plot among a handful of Republicans to blow up their own party’s primary for governor just before election day was born out of frustration.

Attorney General Charlie Crist was running away with it, light years ahead in the polls and leading comfortably in fundraising, too. Rival Tom Gallagher, the state’s chief financial officer and a veteran of Florida politics, had mounted a disappointing challenge.

Gallagher conservatives saw even more at stake than the party’s nomination for governor. The winner of the Sept. 5 primary would be the leader of the state GOP in the post-Jeb Bush world, defining the party’s values for years to come. Crist was soft on core issues, they thought.

The race had long been predicted to be close and nasty. The less it became of the first, the more it became of the second.

Crist and Gallagher had spent about $100,000 each on opposition research, a polite term for hiring a company to dig up dirt on your opponent. Crist  seemed to get the better of it. Gallagher suffered through a year of unpleasant revelations about possible conflicts of interest in his financial life and scandalous details from his first marriage and divorce, all pushed aggressively by Crist allies.

But the digging on Crist had turned up nothing. So a band of Gallagher supporters, using an independent committee called “Coalition to Protect the American Dream,” paid $75,000 to launch an aggressive and less conventional approach to dirt-digging. They hired Steve Andrews, an old Gallagher friend and millionaire Tallahassee lawyer with deep ties to Crist’s home turf, Pinellas County.

Andrews thought the detour from his usual courtroom work would be a kick, “like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” he said. He filed public record requests to examine Crist’s old work history and asked around. What did he hope to find? Unsavory business partners or close friends? Lies on resumes? Maybe finally prove the whispered rumor — repeatedly denied by Crist — that he might be gay?

But Andrews struck out, too. At 50, Crist the bachelor and longtime public official had lived the kind of austere life, both socially and financially, that left few damaging footprints. Reporters at newspapers around the state hadn’t done much better.

So there was a whiff of desperation attached to a last-minute rumor that tawdry allegations involving Charlie Crist had surfaced.
Andrews didn’t know anything about it. Turns out another loyal Gallagher man had been digging around about Crist.

Clifton C. Curry Jr. of Brandon, like Andrews, is not what you would expect of a political dirt peddler. He’s a lawyer, a Little League coach, 2004 Bush-Cheney regional campaign chairman, chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission.

He was a classmate of Crist’s at Florida State and he had copies of documents from a sealed court file that could be extremely embarrassing to Crist. Curry wanted them publicized before the primary.

“It was brother shooting brother,’’ Andrews, son of a former Pinellas judge, said of the Republican war waged below the radar. “What you had was a split in Republicans who had been united in helping Jeb Bush get elected and united in electing George W. Bush, and now they were saying the most rude and outrageous things about each other. It was like Cain and Abel.’’

***

The story begins with a woman named Rebecca O’Dell Townsend. At 48, she’s an amiable and respected appellate lawyer in St. Petersburg and frequent lecturer on constitutional law to conservative groups. A past president of the Suncoast Women’s Republican Club and founding member of the Downtown Women’s Republican Club in Tampa, she was appointed by Gov. Bush to the Florida Film & Arts Advisory Council. The state Supreme Court put her on its Committee on Arts in the Courtroom.

In 1988, she was an active Young Republican and a staunch social conservative. Crist was an up-and-coming politico, who had lost in his first run for political office, a state Senate seat.

As Townsend tells it, she and Crist connected at a Feather Sound nightclub. After dancing, they went back to his St. Petersburg apartment early on Oct. 1, 1988.

Some weeks later she realized she was pregnant. Separated from her husband and headed for divorce, she said she confronted Crist at a Republican Party event and told him he was the father. She said he replied, “that’s impossible.”

Nonetheless, months later, Crist signed papers to help Townsend put a baby girl up for adoption.

The story kicked around Pinellas Republican circles, mostly as a rumor, largely doubted by those who heard it, about Crist and a fellow party activist.

There was plenty of reason to doubt Townsend’s word. Her divorce and subsequent custody battle for her two other children, which raged on long after the divorce was resolved, created an ugly paper trail. Among other things, the records show that she had mental problems at the time and had made a number of never-substantiated allegations of rape and domestic violence.

Her father-in-law from that first marriage, a lawyer, had submitted an affidavit to the court in the divorce outlining what he called her pattern of lies. On his list: her story of getting pregnant by an unnamed politician, which the father-in-law said in his affidavit she later recanted.

As a result, her story about Crist had been heard and dismissed by Republicans around Pinellas County for years. David Zachem, a Crist supporter and longtime Republican activist in Pinellas, told the Times that Townsend personally recanted her story about Crist to him years ago. She denies that.

“I never kept it a secret from anybody,” Townsend said. “I told many people about it.’’

In high-profile races, campaign workers and news reporters receive all kinds of calls peddling dirt on candidates. Many they chase, some they ignore as far-fetched or impossible to prove.

Professional opposition research is big business, and campaigns invest heavily in researching opponents through lawsuit searches, voting records and other avenues. Typically they even research their own candidates to prepare for attacks and measure vulnerabilities.

Still, a political bombshell, the story Townsend had to tell, had gone unnoticed by the well-paid researchers hunting for ammunition against Crist.

“We were looking in other directions,’’ said Andrews.

That is until one week before the primary, when former Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Clif Curry stepped into the fray.

Curry is a prominent civic leader and Republican who has been a key organizer for Bush-Cheney and money raiser for Republican chief financial officer candidate Tom Lee among others. Curry is currently a finance co-chairman for Gus Bilirakis’ congressional campaign.

As a Gallagher supporter, Curry served as his lawyer earlier in the campaign when Gallagher’s old divorce records caused a public stir.
In the past, Curry also supported Crist. He donated to Crist’s 2000 campaign for Education Commissioner and his 2002 race for attorney general. They have known each other since their days at FSU, where Crist narrowly defeated Curry for homecoming king.

Townsend said she didn’t know Curry until one week before the primary, when he called. Is the story I’ve heard about you and Charlie Crist true, he asked. Yes, she said, I have documents.

She gave him copies of three pages from a sealed adoption file:

What the documents show is that a woman once accused Crist of fathering her child out of wedlock and that he readily surrendered parental rights. That’s a potentially damaging revelation when your political opponent is a hard-line champion for protecting family values.

For Gallagher’s allies, the next move was clear: Get the story into the newspaper. Said Curry: “I felt very strongly that if there was truth to the allegations they should be printed before the primary.’’ For the good of the party.

***

In the rough world of political campaigns, reporters are often willing or manipulated accomplices in spreading a juicy story. This case was no different.

The folks trying to help Gallagher with the Townsend allegations hoped to use Michael Fechter of the Tampa Tribune to get the story out. He would get the tip first.

On Wednesday, Aug. 30, less than a week before primary day, Fechter called Townsend. But in his initial phone interview with Townsend, Fechter made it clear he wouldn’t rush the story into the newspaper.

So, the Gallagher allies cast their net wider. Early in the afternoon of  Aug. 31, with the primary  just five days away, a source telephoned a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times. The source said they understood the Tribune was about to publish a story about Crist’s entanglement in a paternity dispute.

Times reporters made a flurry of phone calls to Gallagher supporters seeking anyone who might provide the records . At 4:14 p.m., the documents arrived by fax from a Kinko’s copy center in Brandon, a four-minute drive from Curry’s office.

The Crist campaign said it would not respond without seeing the documents, so the Times provided copies.

Townsend spoke by phone that evening to the Times. The Miami Herald called her, too.

By then, Crist’s allies had already set to work knocking down Townsend’s story. Townsend expected it and predicted that her career might well be ruined by talking to reporters now. “If he wants to go after my credibility, he’ll do great. They’ll have a field day.’’

Indeed, that night, with help from Townsend’s former father-in-law, Crist allies faxed documents to reporters suggesting that Townsend was unstable. Records show she was committed for involuntary psychiatric examination under the Baker Act in March 1989 and took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1993.

“I was a walking, talking victim. That period in my life was so dark and so awful and I almost didn’t make it through,’’ said Townsend, who attributed much of her mental state to the circumstances of her unwanted pregnancy, as well as her divorce and custody fight.

“But I also went through two psychological evaluations as part of my divorce and that’s when I found out I was not mentally ill.’’

The questions about her mental state concerned Times editors, who were leaning against a story. Crist didn’t wait for a verdict and telephoned Times’ editor and chairman Paul Tash at home.

“He wanted to be sure that we understood that it wasn’t true and that there were real questions about her credibility,’’ Tash recounted of the brief conversation.

Late that night, George LeMieux, Crist’s campaign manager, said Crist would not speak to reporters: “This is a last-minute attack by a desperate opponent in his fourth run for governor that is categorically false.’’

None of the state’s newspapers published a story Friday.

“Too many unanswered questions for such a potentially explosive story,” Times executive editor Neil Brown said. “We’re prepared to let readers decide for themselves, but you’ve got to give them enough accurate and attributed information so they can make their own judgments. We weren’t there yet.”

Newspapers tend not to write volatile political stories close to Election Day, except in extraordinary circumstances. Did this qualify?

Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler said the story clearly smacked of “a last-minute smear.’’ Without corroborating evidence and with serious doubts about the veracity of Townsend, “We would have in effect been providing little more than innuendo to our readers.’’

On Friday, Townsend said she got a phone call urging her to hold a news conference Saturday morning. Townsend and Curry declined to say whether it was him.

“They wanted me to come down with the papers and stand in front of the St. Pete Times building and hold a press conference. I said no,’’ Townsend said. “I’ve been willing to talk about it with anyone. But I don’t have an agenda where I’m going to hold a press conference.’’

Townsend had a previously scheduled speaking engagement at a Christian Coalition group in Largo that morning. She warned the 30 or so attendees about the dangers of an “unchecked” judicial branch.

Afterward she spoke to a Times reporter:

“Everybody thinks you all are going to hold off (on the story),” she said. “If Crist is the nominee then you all are going to use it to help the Democrat.’’

She said she was encouraged (she won’t say by whom) to speak out, assured that other women would come forward publicly with more tawdry allegations against Crist. That never happened.

“If I’m being used by the Gallagher campaign or not I can’t tell you one way or the other,” she said. “That’s not why I’m telling my story.”

Curry acknowledges getting the records from Townsend and says he shared them with others, but not with reporters. “Any number of people,” could have done that, but he doesn’t believe the Gallagher campaign was directly involved.

But somebody was.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Saturday, an e-mail went out to 43 reporters across the state from a “David Smith.’’ The three documents related to the paternity matter were attached. The e-mail read:

Subject: Affidavits
Questions:
If Charlie Crist was not the father, then why did he sign a consent to adopt — when signing a consent to adopt without being the father is against the law?

Were Charlie Crist and his family pressuring Rebecca Townsend (Wharrie)?

Crist’s mother was the signer of one of the affidavits.

If Charlie Crist was the father, why did he not take responsibility for the  child?

Why has Charlie Crist never spoken about this incident?

The people of Florida have a right to know.

Gallagher campaign staffers were aware of the documents, but insisted they had nothing to do with spreading the charges. “We’re looking through this just like you guys are,’’ Gallagher campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez told reporters on a bus driving through North Florida that evening. “It’s troubling and it raises a lot of questions, but we’re going to reserve judgment.’’

With the primary just two days away, another e-mail went out Sunday. The story still had not appeared in any newspapers. The Sunday message, with the documents attached, went to Republican activists across Florida. It said:

“Why won’t this story run? — The Truth About Charlie. Failure to support his illegitimate child. See attached.”

Crist campaign managers, who had been in crisis mode over the documents since Thursday, knew their candidate would soon have to face the question directly. At First Baptist, a cavernous Jacksonville church that has about 2,500 people for the service, Crist listened to a Sunday sermon about ridding oneself of excess baggage in life.

“Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men,” Pastor Mac Brunson said. “When you are attacked, you don’t attack in return.”
After the service, Crist walked a block away from the church and met a small group of reporters gathered at a quiet, commercial intersection.

“We’ve been all over these affidavits,” said John Kennedy of the Orlando Sentinel. “You never had sex with that woman?”

“The whole thing, I mean, it’s just absolutely false,” Crist said. “It’s obviously a last-minute ditch effort to try to resurrect a campaign, and it’s sad, and it’s the most scurrilous thing I think I’ve ever heard of in Florida politics. And I’m not going to honor it with any further comment.”

On Monday, the day before the primary, the Times, the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published stories about the paternity documents, focusing on Crist’s denial.

Gallagher was quoted in the Times: “Listen, I know how tough it is when personal stuff is (brought up). I’ve told my staff, we’re not running a personal campaign and if anyone gets involved in making comments about someone’s personal life, they’re fired.”

On Election Day, several newspapers ran an Associated Press account of Crist denying he fathered a child in 1989. The Crist campaign remained confident and upbeat throughout the day.

Crist won the primary by 33 percentage points, winning more votes in the gubernatorial primary than any Republican had ever won.

The Times contacted Curry a few days after the election. A loyal Republican to the end, he said Crist had put the revelations to rest, and he was mad the Times would consider  publishing Townsend’s allegations against the Republican nominee.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.