Attorney general refocuses job

Bill McCollum breaks from the past by emphasizing cybercrimes.

By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer
Published March 12, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - He is Florida's ultimate conservative, a small-framed, earnest family man who campaigned on fighting terrorism, pedophiles and child pornographers.

So when Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum inherited oversight of a committee studying problems facing African-American males, Democrat Frederica Wilson shuddered.

"Oh my God, this will never work," the state senator from Miami recalled thinking. "I wanted him to understand this was not a feel-good experiment where we put little black boys in a Petri dish."

A year later, she's swallowing her doubt. The committee's work caught the attention of House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has pledged to act on its findings.

"I'm truly proud of Bill McCollum," Wilson said, crediting the Republican with giving the panel the resources it needed. "He's proven to be a team player."

But 14 months after he became attorney general, others are still trying to size up McCollum, who arrived in Tallahassee after a quarter century in Washington as a sharply partisan congressman turn corporate lobbyist.

McCollum's laser focus on cybercrime has put him at the vanguard of a growing issue. But some wonder if it has hurt the traditional role of the office.

"We were really hoping to have a strong consumer advocate in the AG's office, and we're still waiting for that," said Brad Ashwell of the Florida Public Interest Research Group.

McCollum, 63, said he has steadily built teams to investigate fraud at every level, including the Internet.

"None of that happens overnight. It's a wild West out there," he said. "Any of the consumer groups that want to be critical are absolutely wrong."

The team player that impressed Wilson, however, doesn't apply to all of McCollum's roles. He and Gov. Charlie Crist have clashed over a trio of ideological issues: gambling, felon's rights and global warming.

In April, as Crist pushed to make it easier to restore certain civil rights for felons, including voting and credentials for employment, McCollum fretted that a dangerous criminal with an exterminator's license could have access to a person's home. He blasted the move as "reckless and irresponsible" and a "grave mistake."

In December, McCollum sued to stop Crist from executing a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, calling it a "very questionable act."

In a little-noticed move just days after Christmas, McCollum sent Crist and other Cabinet members The Great Global Warming Swindle - a DVD rebutting climate change initiatives Crist has endorsed.

McCollum says overall relations with Crist are good: "There's a constant exchange of information between our office and theirs. And we work through the areas where we have our differences." Crist is not critical of McCollum, either.

"As time goes by, they will not always be on the same side," said former state GOP chairman Tom Slade. "That's going to make it far more fun to watch and probably more beneficial for the state. You don't get much accomplished when everyone is sitting around singingKumbaya."

Another video did not pass quietly. McCollum stirred controversy in January when he urged his employees to view a film to understand "the terrorist threat to Florida and the West by radical Islam." Muslim leaders called the film propaganda. McCollum later said no one was required to view the film, and he met with Muslim leaders about their concerns.

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The hallmark of McCollum's tenure so far has been cybercrime, particularly child predators and pornographers. He said the focus came when he visited a Jacksonville investigative office during his 2006 campaign and saw the scope of the problem: chat rooms filled with people seeking children, child pornography, and more.

"It was mind-boggling," McCollum said. "I realized there needed to be a real leadership effort in the state to point out the problems and get people involved."

After defeating Democrat Skip Campbell, McCollum persuaded legislators to increase the number of cybercrime investigators to 56 from six. So far, funding has been provided for 28. The effort has resulted in the prosecution of 24 cases, with dozens more in the works.

McCollum wants to continue the effort, though the state budget crisis may pose a problem. His priorities this year include using his statewide prosecution office to tackle gangs and marijuana grow houses. Just Monday, he announced charges against 29 suspected marijuana producers in Miami-Dade.

But some consumer groups say the attention on those issues has come at the expense of others, including the mortgage crisis and property insurance rates. Crist, who preceded McCollum as attorney general, has garnered more coverage on the issue.

Indeed, McCollum has had trouble emerging from the shadow of Crist and Bob Butterworth, the four-term former Democratic attorney general who was seen as an aggressive consumer advocate.

The knock on McCollum during the 2006 election was that his decades in Washington left him closely aligned with big business, including the banking and credit industry. In 1998, he sponsored a reform measure that would have made it harder for Americans to be relieved of debt.

"I haven't been terribly impressed with him," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network in Tampa.

McCollum says critics haven't looked hard enough. He has gone after calling card companies that cheat customers out of minutes. He joined other states in a call to crack down on deceptive student loan practices.

In January, McCollum subpoenaed records from Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation's largest mortgage lender.

Last month, McCollum struck an agreement with AT&T to crack down on third-party vendors who deceptively charge cell phone users for ring tones. McCollum said he expects other states will follow.

Sandy Safley, a lobbyist, former state lawmaker from Pinellas County and longtime friend of McCollum's, thinks his first year demonstrated maturity and wisdom.

"While it may be vogue to hang industry up by their ankles," he said, "Bill knows it's more productive to manage and regulate with authority but with reason."


Bill McCollum

Position: Florida attorney general, elected in 2006 (term ends 2010)

Born: Brooksville, July 12, 1944

Education: Hernando High School (senior class president, voted "most studious"; University of Florida (bachelor's and law degree)

Work history: U.S. Navy prosecutor; U.S. congressman (1981-2001) from Orlando area; lobbyist Baker and Hostetler, LLP (2001-2006).

Family: Married, Ingrid Seebohm McCollum; three sons.

Web site: myfloridalegal.com