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Consumer friendly? Two leave doubts

Past attorneys general have been advocates for Florida consumers.

Published October 15, 2006

Florida's next attorney general likely will be expected to carry the consumer flag in Tallahassee, like Charlie Crist and Bob Butterworth before him.

But the two men now running for the job both have angered consumer groups in making some high-profile decisions, a St. Petersburg Times review of their voting histories reveals.

Both Democrat Walter "Skip" Campbell and Republican Bill McCollum have written legislation and cast votes that have been criticized as anticonsumer, sometimes at the request of business interests.

Former U.S. Rep. McCollum, in particular, has been dogged by claims that he is anticonsumer, winning the satirical Orwell and Golden Leash awards from consumer groups for trying to expand FBI wiretapping privileges and rewriting federal bankruptcy law.

And state Sen. Campbell sponsored a bill that required women wanting to give a child up for adoption to list the men they slept with in newspapers. He also supported legislation that carried with it the largest telephone rate increase in the state's history.

Both men defend their record and promise to continue the proconsumer tradition the attorney general's office has embraced. They also point to proconsumer efforts: McCollum tried to create a national catastrophic fund in 1996, and Campbell this year has become a leading advocate for property insurance reform.

But at a time when voters increasingly are searching for politicians who share their interests, the pasts of Campbell and McCollum may raise some uncomfortable questions.

Campbell, 57, sponsored what has been called the "Scarlet Letter Law" in 2001, as an attempt to prevent adoptions from being challenged when unknown fathers emerged. But Campbell says he didn't realize the law also required mothers to list their sexual histories in a newspaper to provide notice the adoption was to take place.

The requirement, which included women who had been raped and were underage, was ruled unconstitutional by a Florida appellate court. It was repealed by the Legislature in 2003.

Campbell says he inherited the bill from Fred Dudley, who left the state Senate office to run for attorney general. Dudley did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

"As soon as we found out about it, we fixed it," said Campbell, who sponsored the bill's repeal.

McCollum, 62, had received consistently poor reviews from citizens groups while serving 20 years in the U.S. House. Of 29 congressional votes monitored by the Florida Public Interest Research Group since 1996, McCollum voted the proconsumer position just four times.

And he received an 8 (out of 100) rating from the Consumer Federation of America in 1999.

McCollum has often come to the aid of the banking industry, critics in each of his three statewide elections have said. He championed legislation that allowed financial institutions to share personal information about their clients, and in 1998 sponsored an overhaul of federal bankruptcy law that was criticized as catering to credit card companies.

The bill would have forced many people to file under Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code instead of Chapter 7. Chapter 13 provides debtors less financial protection. The bill, a significant portion of which became law after McCollum left office, "sought to turn the bankruptcy system into a high-priced debt collection agency for the credit card industry," the Consumer Federation of America said at the time.

"McCollum has no consumer record," said Bill Newton, the executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. Newton's group gave Campbell its champion award this year for consumer activism.

Despite the criticism, McCollum says the bankruptcy bill was proconsumer.

"Consumers who use credit responsibly and pay back their debts should not have to bear the burden of paying for the bad debts of those who in the past abused the system under the easy bankruptcy filing rules," McCollum said in an e-mail to the Times.

Though consumer service issues fall under the umbrella of the state agriculture commissioner, the attorney general often takes the lead.

When he was in office, Bob Butterworth fought to cut gas prices and sued cigarette manufacturers and the companies that hawk expensive contact lens solution. He attacked price gouging before it was illegal, and demanded reforms in sweepstakes procedures.

And Charlie Crist took on the power companies and the insurance lobbyists over the past four years. Crist summoned oil executives to Tallahassee and focused on Medicaid fraud.

"The ag office has always been with a capital 'A,' and consumer services with a little, lower case 'c,' " said Brad Ashwell, legislative advocate for Florida PIRG, a public interest research group. "It's been the attorney general who has played the consumer advocate role."

Along with sponsoring the initial phone rate hikes, Campbell has been questioned for his role in the reforms of the payday loan industry.

Campbell wrote a 1999 bill that would have allowed payday loan lenders to raise interest fees from 10 to 15 percent, an increase watchdogs compared to racketeering. But Campbell's bill, he said, sought to prevent debtors from rolling over their loans, in order to shield people from the largest interest increases. That bill never passed, and in 2001, he ultimately co-sponsored a reform bill that has become the model of the country, one that has been accepted by both consumer and business interests.

Republicans have accused Campbell of taking credit for the 2001 bill, which Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, says he shepherded, while misleading voters about the anticonsumer 1999 measure Campbell wrote.

And McCollum has been attacked for trying to gut a federal measure that outlawed fraud against the government and gave whistle-blowers protection and possibly a reward for uncovering waste.

McCollum's 1998 bill was challenged by labor unions, church groups and consumer watchdogs, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Thirty newspapers, and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, also railed against the plan.

"Bill McCollum's record of votes on consumer issues in the U.S. House of Representatives leads me to seriously question whether he could ever live up to the role of a consumer advocate now expected of Florida's attorney general," Ashwell said. He said Campbell's record isn't perfect, either, though it is better.

Both campaigns say any elected official can have what are considered anticonsumer votes on his resume.

In a tight election that has turned more hostile recently, it's a rare political agreement.

[Last modified October 14, 2006, 23:53:24]

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