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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Experts at the attack
A rare look at who is behind political ads ... and one candidate who decided to fight back. A St. Petersburg Times special report
By LUCY MORGAN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published July 22, 2007
It was through this mail center, The UPS Store in the Park Capital shopping center in Tallahassee, that these political committees operated.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Suite 18-119 is home to Floridians for Integrity in Government at The UPS Store in the Park Capital shopping center in Tallahassee.
Paige Kreegel told the lawyer for the people he sued: "This is the piece de resistance. This is the wall-sized, framable copy of the mud that your client slings."
The king of the attack ads could not believe his good fortune. A cursory look and he had found a gold mine on a doctor who was running for state House.
The guy had been in court again and again, sued for malpractice three times, sued for paternity, sued for nonpayment of a debt, charged with criminal mischief. Heck, if even half of it turned out to be true, attacking him would be great sport.
All he needed was to find somebody who would pay him for dishing the dirt.
* * *
When Dr. Paige V. Kreegel decided to run for the state House three summers ago, he knew the rough-and-tumble world of politics might leave him a little bumped and bruised. But he figured he was sitting pretty.
A Republican in a heavily Republican district, he had roots in the community -- his medical practice went back more than 15 years -- and political contacts in the Sheriff's Office, where he did volunteer work flying helicopters. He campaigned as a by-the-bootstraps guy who worked his way through medical school, started his own clinic and donated his time to help people in need.
The Republican primary would decide who won the seat, and headed into the final days before the vote Kreegel was the front-runner. Then came two devastating curves: a hurricane and ... a political flier.
With 145 mph winds, Hurricane Charley pivoted in the Gulf of Mexico and made straight for District 72.
"We had our house and our town kicked apart by a hurricane," Kreegel said. "No electricity, no running water."
Amid the chaos and the heartache wrought by Charley, Kreegel's home phone started ringing. Nonstop. Day and night. People demanded an explanation.
What's this about getting a student pregnant and avoiding responsibility? Did three of his patients really die because he was negligent? And what had he done to get arrested for criminal mischief?
Campaign brochures had landed in mailboxes across the district, detailing Kreegel's past and urging voters to call "and ask him why he spends so much time in court!" The flier conveniently included his home phone number.
Hundreds called. Kreegel said many would unload on whoever answered the phone, even on his 4-year-old daughter.
"I decided to answer each and every call," said Kreegel, 58. "They had read something which was untrue, slanted, designed to make them think something which was not correct."
Days later, Kreegel won the election. But he felt he had been mugged, and he didn't want the "mudslingers" to get away with tarnishing his reputation. Maybe he could sue the bastards. First he needed to figure out who they were.
* * *
400 Capital Circle SE, Suite 18-119, Tallahassee
That was the address for Floridians for Integrity in Government. Over in Suite 18-234 was Citizens for Safer Streets. Next door, in 18-235, was People for Fairness & Equality, with the Florida Freedom Council down the way in 18-237.
Integrity. Safer streets and freedom. Not only fairness, but equality, too. Add a little apple pie and it would seem that 400 Capital Circle SE was the repository of all that makes America great.
Except that the address is a UPS store in a strip shopping center, where mailboxes rent for $12 a month. Each of those political committees had its own postal box or, as they more elegantly put it: "suite".
Through these committees, millions of dollars were funneled to pay for nasty political ads. The sources of the money generally remain secret until after voters cast their ballots.
That these committees can stay in the shadows and spew their dirty allegations may seem like a blot on democracy. Then again, what if most of the accusations are true?
The return address on the brochure that humiliated Kreegel said it was paid for by Floridians for Integrity in Government. FIG, as it was called, had a sister committee, the lovely sounding People for Integrity in Government (with a less-than-lovely sounding acronym).
To avenge himself, Kreegel sued for libel. He was going to nail the FIGs and the PIGs.
* * *
When it comes to nasty politics in Florida, the conversation inevitably gets around to Randy Nielsen, who proudly wears the mantle: the state's foremost expert on attack ads.
As he put it: "I'll never get nominated for Miss Congeniality in politics."
He is 44, a devout Mormon and a teetotaler from Utah. With his wife and four children, he lives in West Palm Beach. With partner Richard Johnston, Nielsen owns Public Concepts LLC, an award-winning political consulting business. Started in 1991, it now operates in 25 states.
Nielsen enjoys close ties to the Florida Republican Party, Senate presidents current and past (Ken Pruitt, Tom Lee), dozens more legislators and the Florida Home Builders Association. In the past decade, these groups and candidates have paid Nielsen almost $8-million.
How does he operate? Sometimes a candidate hires him to dig up dirt. Other times, as with Kreegel, he trolls the backgrounds of people who qualify to run. If he finds dirt, he peddles it.
People call it negative campaigning, but Nielsen says it's in the finest tradition of the First Amendment: His work ensures that "voters have the right information to make a conscientious decision."
Nielsen homed in on Kreegel, whom he considered ripe for picking. No other candidate had as much legal baggage. "This was the most information about a candidate that we had," Nielsen said.
His next step: Find a buyer. Who would want to take out Kreegel?
Late in July 2004, a little more than a month before the primary, Nielsen contacted his buddy Richard Gentry.
* * *
For 23 years, the wisecracking lobbyist was the voice of the Florida Home Builders Association in Tallahassee. Gentry controlled the checkbook for millions in campaign donations for candidates the builders favored.
He and Nielsen often worked together: Since 1996, the Home Builders have paid Nielsen's firm about $470,000.
Gentry liked the idea of going after Kreegel, whose main opponent, Ken Roberson, seemed friendlier to the Home Builders. He also supported a Gentry ally for House speaker in 2008.
When Gentry gave Nielsen the green light to attack Kreegel, the political consultant turned to Kingfish Consulting, an opposition research firm in suburban Washington, D.C., that does work for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Kingfish owner Stephen Marks usually gets $3,000 to $5,000 for each candidate he investigates. But for Kreegel's case, he said he got an extra $1,000 because there was so much information to mine.
Searching the Internet, he found that Kreegel had been charged with criminal mischief in 1989, a case in which a woman accused him of kicking her car and damaging it.
In civil court files, he found a 1992 lawsuit in which an electrical contractor sued Kreegel for nonpayment for work done at his medical practice.
Marks also found three malpractice lawsuits, filed in 1991, 1997 and 2001. He obtained the first and last entries in the court files, enough to see that Kreegel had been accused of failure to provide proper care in cases involving patient deaths, and that the cases had been settled.
He found a paternity suit that an exotic dancer filed against Kreegel in 1991. She said he got her pregnant, denied paternity and urged her to get an abortion.
"I've ordered a copy of the entire case file," Marks wrote to Nielsen, "but if you need some immediate ammo, I can fax you the original complaint."
What did Marks mean by "immediate ammo"?
"I meant since we didn't have the whole case file, there was still enough in that complaint that if they wanted to just throw something out there, you know, that just from the complaint alone, there was so much damaging charges in there, allegations, that they could at least throw that out."
Nielsen used the material Marks collected to put together a flier with a spooky spiderweb motif that trumpeted: "Oh what a tangled web Paige Kreegel weaves."
To create a committee to send out the fliers, Nielsen needed an attorney.
* * *
John French is a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, now a registered Republican. In the 1970s, he helped write the state's election laws and helped Gov. Reubin Askew draft the "Sunshine amendment" to bring openness to state government. Now he helps create political committees that sometimes avoid the sunshine.
Nielsen says French is his go-to attorney: "He is probably one of the best election lawyers in the state of Florida."
On Aug. 10, 2004 -- three weeks before election day -- French filed the paperwork to create FIG and set up its "offices" in the UPS mailbox. Money for FIG was furnished by PIG, a federal elections committee that got its money from trial lawyers, sugar companies, the Florida Home Builders PAC and Citizens for Better Communities, another Home Builders committee.
Campaign laws prohibit political action committees from donating more than $500 to a candidate. But they can give as much as they want to FIGs, PIGs and the like.
Gentry moved $251,500 from PIG to FIG. From that money, FIG paid Nielsen's company $128,000.
As the lawyer for FIG, it fell to French to sign off on the fliers. Among other things, he looks out for language that directly supports or opposes an individual candidate, which election laws prohibit.
The flier attacking Kreegel went out 12 days after Hurricane Charley blew in. In an e-mail to a Nielsen associate approving the flier on Aug. 25, 2004, French wrote:
"When you guys get through with him, the only question will be, where do you want the body?"
Later, French would testify that it was just a joke. "It was beyond my comprehension that a candidate with this much baggage could make it through the primary. So it's like, you know, it was almost like the public is going to look at this, and this guy is dead meat."
* * *
In May 2005, nine months after Kreegel was elected, he sued Nielsen, Public Concepts and the Florida Home Builders for libel, later adding Gentry and French as defendants. He said he hoped his lawsuit would help derail dirty politics. "I have no problem with criticism of policy or ideology," he said. "I do have a problem with character assassination based on lies."
Over the next two years, the lawsuit would provide a window into the world of political committees, as men who like to fly below the radar gave depositions. Some of the liveliest testimony came in Kreegel's deposition, a grueling nine-hour affair.
People can forever debate the sad state of political discourse, but negative or not, what matters in libel is whether the attacks are true. Martin Reeder, the lawyer who represents Nielsen and the Home Builders, walked Kreegel through the main allegations in the flier. What was false?
On the paternity suit: Kreegel said he met the woman at a party given by her relative, who worked with him at the hospital. He said that he didn't believe she was pregnant and that she was just trying to wring money out of him. "There is a remote possibility that had she been pregnant, it could have been by me." To settle the case, he paid her between $2,000 and $2,500, money he said she wanted for a "boob job" to help her dancing career.
On the electrician's lawsuit: Kreegel said the contractor billed double what Kreegel expected for work at his medical practice, "and we paid him what we understood it to be." The court ordered Kreegel and his practice to pay the contractor what he had billed, plus attorney fees and interest, a total of nearly $14,000.
On the three malpractice lawsuits: Kreegel said all three "were what we call in the field 'shotgun cases.' They always, almost invariably, sue the primary care doctor -- primary care is what I've been doing for 17 years -- and then any specialist you've sent the patient to, whether it's a surgeon, radiologist, cardiologist." In all three cases, he said, he was dismissed as a defendant after his pretrial testimony was taken. Neither he nor any insurance carrier acting on his behalf paid a penny.
The big issue was the flier's incorrect reference to his "arrests," plural, though there was but one case. And in that case, he was not arrested. He said he had a running dispute with a "mental patient" who sought treatment from him. For a year there were incidents involving her "harassment and stalking" of Kreegel, his girlfriend and his office employees, to the point that he said he got a restraining order against her.
When he walked near a hospital parking lot one day, he said, she drove at him at high speed, and he had to dodge out of the way. "I brought my foot kind of in a reflex action to kick off from the vehicle and it did strike the vehicle at which point incredibly this person comes to a stop, looks at the door and says, 'Now I'm going to call the police.'"
The State Attorney's Office charged him with criminal mischief by filing an "information," the document used to charge a crime in Florida. Kreegel said he never was served with any paperwork. The charge ultimately was dropped.
Kreegel, a state lawmaker, testified that he did not know what state official is responsible for charging people with crimes in Florida. He did not know if a state attorney is empowered to charge someone with a crime, nor did he know what an "information" is. Handed a copy of the document that charged him with criminal mischief, he said it was not a charge because the facts were not proven.
To win a libel case, a public official must show that false information was published maliciously, or with reckless disregard for whether it was true. Which is why Reeder explored Kreegel's thoughts about lying.
REEDER: "Are all untrue statements lies?"
KREEGEL: "That's fairly philosophical. I don't know that I can answer that for you. ... On the penny it says 'In God We Trust.' If somebody doesn't, does that make it a lie? I'm not sure that's correct."
REEDER: "If the people who prepared the mailer were told you were arrested for criminal mischief, would it be a lie in your mind to put it in the mailer?"
KREEGEL: "If I tell my little girl that soccer practice is at 5, thinking it is and show up at 5 and it's not until 5:30, I really don't think that constitutes a lie. I don't see any injury that's been done. Now, when you have an ongoing enterprise where your business is slinging mud at people, spending many thousands of dollars sending out mailers to ten or twenty thousand homes in an event to negatively influence an election, it would seem to me that your internal standard of proof should be a little higher than mine deciding what time to take my 5-year-old to soccer.
"So I believe that Mr. Nielsen knew or absolutely should have known that this was not true at the time, did it anyway because that's his job. That's what he does for a living. And he feels that he's never really been sued, I'll get away with it."
* * *
Kreegel would not be interviewed about his lawsuit. His lawyer, Darol Carr, said shadowy political committees like FIG take advantage of the First Amendment to go after public figures.
"You can form these nameless, faceless organizations and use this horrible law and as result you have to prove actual malice, you have nameless faceless entities that take no responsibility," Carr said.
"Ultimately it's about the money and who has the power and controls. Taken to its extreme you could take a person running for political office and say he's committed murder because he was a combat pilot like John McCain."
Reeder counters that what was in the flier was true except for the "arrest," and even then, a criminal charge was filed. He points out that even Kreegel's own campaign consultant, Jim Rimes, testified that he essentially made the same mistake when he first heard that Kreegel had been issued a misdemeanor summons:
REEDER: "Did you interpret this to mean that Mr. Kreegel had been arrested back in 1989 for criminal mischief?"
RIMES: "That was my initial reaction, yes."
The defense has asked Charlotte Circuit Judge Donald Pellecchia to dismiss the lawsuit. The case had been scheduled for hearings in January and February, but Kreegel invoked a law that allows legislators to delay court until the legislative session is over. The next hearing is scheduled in mid September.
Nielsen said the defendants, who have spent more than $200,000 on legal fees, are frustrated that Kreegel has used legislative privilege to delay hearings.
"He had a right to sue," Nielsen said. "But the more I'm involved with him, the less I doubt his sincerity."
He advised not to be fooled by Kreegel's comments that his lawsuit is about reining in the evil committees. "I'd love to have your readers better understand what's at stake here: free speech and the misuse of the courts system to settle a political score," Nielsen said.
Last-minute advertising campaigns like the one used against Kreegel just won support from the U.S. Supreme Court. The June 25 ruling was a blow to campaign reformers who had sought to block the use of soft money for advertising campaigns launched in the final days before an election.
Gentry, meanwhile, has parted company with the Home Builders, some of whom thought the Kreegel flier was inappropriate. Gentry's list of lobbying clients now includes BellSouth, Tampa Electric, AT&T, Florida Crystals and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida.
Nielsen and French continue to ply their trades. During the 2006 election cycle, Nielsen's company took in $3.2-million, with $1.7-million coming from the state GOP. French was paid about $71,000 by the Home Builders and several political committees, including the Coalition for Justice and Equality, Coalition for Bipartisan Progress and Florida's Working Families.
Of the committees formed during 2004 elections with addresses at 400 Capital Circle SE, only two remain active: Citizens First, in Suite 123, and Floridians for Conservative Values, in Suite 120.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About this story
This story is based on court records and interviews with key players in the libel lawsuit Paige Kreegel filed in Charlotte County Circuit Court. The quotes are drawn from court records, with two exceptions: Kreegel attorney Darol Carr, talking about the damage he says political committees cause; and Randy Nielsen, questioning Kreegel's motives.
Those interviewed include defendants Nielsen, Richard Gentry and John French; the attorneys on both sides, Carr and Martin Reeder; and several legislators, including Senate President Ken Pruitt.