Record mixed for Crist on civil rights

He got the Legislature to pass a stronger law, but two rights lawyers say he has failed to follow it up.

Published October 10, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - As he campaigns for governor, Charlie Crist cites his push for a stronger civil rights law to fight racial discrimination in Florida.

The Legislature passed the Marvin Davies Act in 2003 to give Crist more clout to bring cases based on a "pattern or practice" of discrimination in race, religion, handicap or other categories, rather than an act or threat of intimidation or coercion.

Crist, the first Republican elected attorney general in Florida history, said the new law would allow him to "more easily initiate legal action." But some civil rights experts say that hasn't happened, and they are asking why not.

"We expected more," said Sam Smith, a Tampa civil rights lawyer. "I think the record under Charlie Crist speaks for itself."

"I'm not very impressed," added Tommy Warren, a civil rights lawyer in Tallahassee. "And I'm certainly not very impressed when he's telling the world, especially the African-American community, that he's a big civil rights supporter of theirs."

"We're always open," Crist said in response. "If Mr. Warren knows of more cases, he's more than welcome to share them with us and should."

Crist's Democratic predecessor, Bob Butterworth, could not get a similar law passed, even when Democrats controlled the Legislature. Crist did.

Crist and his civil rights chief say they prefer to settle cases without lawsuits.

Asked to cite cases pursued under the Marvin Davies Act that resulted in monetary settlements, the agency cited two. Neither involved race.

One involved Wal-Mart's use of flat-surface credit card readers that allegedly discriminated against blind customers in Pensacola. The other was a housing case involving a southwest Florida condo association. Both were settled and neither was publicized by Crist's office.

Assistant Attorney General Allison Bethel, who heads the civil rights division, said other cases were pursued under the law but resolved without lawsuits.

"We are not a litigation mill," Bethel said. "Cases that are litigated are few and far between."

The one racial case under the Marvin Davies Act that Crist cites most often involved the Southern Inn in Perry. A motel owner paid $40,000 to settle complaints that he refused to let blacks swim in the pool and placed black customers in less desirable rooms than whites.

Another racial case pursued by Crist's office involved Destin Water Users, which paid $320,000 to end complaints that two workers were subjected to racial discrimination.

The case predated passage of the Davies act, but the workers' lawyer, Rick Johnson, said Crist's lawyers deserved praise for intervening.

"They made a difference, and did some good work, and the company coughed up some good money," Johnson said.

Johnson said he knew of no other similar cases over the past three years. He said that may be because Crist's civil rights division consists of three full-time lawyers and one investigator, and the unit has spent 20 months investigating the 1951 death of civil rights leader Harry T. Moore.

"That staff over there has been cut to the bone," Johnson said.

Records show Bethel herself logged 70 40-hour weeks on the Moore case, but she said it was not true that the division's focus on the Moore case prevented other cases from being pursued.

"It's not as though we receive information or complaints on a regular basis even alleging a pattern or practice of racial discrimination," Bethel said. "The majority of our cases that we have received of late have been alleging disability."

Bethel provided a four-page list of 138 civil rights complaints that have been investigated since the Davies act became law in 2003. Of the 138, 22 are marked with "MD" for Marvin Davies.

Crist's oft-stated support for an aggressive civil rights policy could help him with African-American voters. And that could affect the outcome of the election because his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, has apologized over his 1990 opposition to compensating Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two wrongly imprisoned black men.

The House sponsor of the civil rights bill was Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, Crist's lieutenant governor running mate. Kottkamp was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2003.

"This is designed at getting at those subtle acts of racism that happen every day," Kottkamp said in a meeting on March 12, 2003.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.