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McCollum hopes to lead hearings

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


CLEARWATER -- U.S. Senate candidate Bill McCollum lambasted Janet Reno for the weekend raid that snatched Elian Gonzalez, and said Monday he hopes to preside over congressional hearings on the incident.

"I just find it outrageous that we would go in and break down the door and take this young child out using tactics for a terrorist or hostage situation," the Republican congressman from Longwood said while in Clearwater for a campaign town meeting.

In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno on Monday, McCollum also demanded an explanation for "this disgraceful and sorry episode in American history." As chairman of the House subcommittee on Crime, McCollum said he intends to hold hearings on the raid, but acknowledged that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., may have other plans.

Of the leading candidates to succeed Sen. Connie Mack, McCollum may be the most vocal critic of the raid. But the other two main Senate candidates appear to share his concerns about the force used to remove Elian.

"I was very, very disappointed to see that kind of law enforcement action taken on someone's home, when in fact they were still in negotiations," said Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher, McCollum's opponent in the Republican primary.

Gallagher said he was not surprised McCollum would want to hold hearings: "I'm sure he'll want to take advantage of any opportunity to get some publicity."

Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, the lone Democratic Senate candidate, did not return phone calls seeking his reaction. Spokesman Dan McLaughlin said Nelson spent much of the weekend expressing disappointment in the raid to supporters in Miami.

"He did not believe the use of force was necessary," McLaughlin said, adding that Nelson supports congressional hearings as long as they do not politicize the case.

State Rep. Willie Logan, D-Opa-locka, is running as an independent Senate candidate. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Gallagher and Nelson have been relatively quiet about the Elian case, although as Cabinet members both supported a Cabinet resolution in March calling for a hearing on whether Elian should stay in the United States or return to Cuba. McCollum, by contrast, has been a vocal supporter of granting citizenship to Elian and took heat for invoking the boy in a fundraising letter.

Ironically, McCollum helped make it harder for Elian to remain in the United States, strongly supporting a 1996 immigration reform bill that made it tougher for Cubans to obtain political asylum.

If McCollum does preside over hearings, it would not be the first time he has had a platform questioning Reno's decision-making. He co-chaired House hearings on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

"I have past history with Janet Reno, not trusting her judgment on matters like this, and I am deeply suspicious that this was extremely poor judgment on her part," McCollum said.

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