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    Harris to give media access to computers

    The media will be given access to computers used for her statements during the ballot recount.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 26, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- Secretary of State Katherine Harris will allow media inspection of two office computers used to write public statements during the presidential recount, but only after a computer scientist of her choosing tests both units to verify that no public records were destroyed.

    Harris took the unusual step Wednesday in response to requests by news organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times, to view the computers' hard drives to determine whether any material has been erased. The Times' request was denied by Harris' legal counsel, Debby Kearney, who said hard drives are not considered public record under Florida law.

    Kearney provided reams of copied material from the computers to the Times last week, but she declined to make available a smaller batch of papers, saying that material was personal and not public record. Kearney has said that all material on both computers that the agency considers public has been preserved and made available.

    "The Department of State has engaged a professional computer scientist, Mr. Bill Morgan, to conduct the tests that will verify that no public records created on these two computers were destroyed," Harris said in a prepared statement. "After Mr. Morgan has completed these tests, the Department of State will make these two computers available to the media so that members of the media may verify Mr. Morgan's conclusions and perform any other study of these computers they deem appropriate."

    David Host, a spokesman for Harris, said Morgan works for a private computer firm, but Host had no other details on Morgan's qualifications. Morgan would conduct tests "soon," added Host, who said: "We don't have a confirmation date from him."

    Harris made public thousands of printouts of e-mail in the hectic weeks after the presidential vote. A July 16 story in the New York Times focused on two previously unknown computers in a conference room outside her office, where two advisers active in Republican politics, Adam Goodman and J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, helped Harris craft public statements dealing with counting of overseas military ballots.

    Goodman is a Republican political consultant who is expected to advise Harris on her anticipated race for an open Sarasota-area congressional seat. Stipanovich is a prominent lobbyist. In her statement, Harris said she asked "two personal friends with media experience to assist me in making accurate public statements concerning the law." At the time, Harris did not have a full-time public information officer.

    Harris was in South America early last week when the hard drive controversy erupted, and returned home to find a full-blown media inquiry over access to the hard drives.

    Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, sent a letter to Harris, saying all material on a state computer is public record and open to inspection unless specifically exempted by the Legislature. The Florida Democratic Party also has asked to examine the hard drives.

    Tony Welch, a Democratic Party spokesman, said if new material surfaces on the hard drive, it will show that Harris "broke the law." Said Welch: "This is nothing but a half-hearted attempt by Katherine Harris to clean up the original mess."

    - Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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