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Harris computers show Bush support

Documents renew the debate about whether she was impartial during the historic election recount.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, ALISA ULFERTS and ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 2001


Documents renew the debate about whether she was impartial during the historic election recount.

TALLAHASSEE -- Nine months before she refereed Florida's disputed election recount, Secretary of State Katherine Harris used her office computers to prepare political speeches about the man she fondly referred to as "W."

"I'm a bit biased," say the remarks drafted for Harris' delivery at the GOP's winter meeting on Jan. 29, 2000, in Orlando.

The speech in support of George W. Bush was copied from a state-owned computer in Harris' office and released Tuesday to several media outlets.

In it, Harris notes that she was co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign, and states: "After 7 years of Democrat rule in the White House we need to send the loudest possible message that we are ready to lead!"

That text was among thousands of documents unearthed during review by a Minneapolis company of hard drives in four computers in Harris' office. The data recovery company was hired by several media outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times, after questions arose recently about whether Harris' office deleted computer files in the controversial aftermath of the Nov. 7 election.

Officials with Ontrack Data International, which conducted the media review, said Tuesday that some information had been deleted from computer hard drives in Harris' office, but that it appeared the loss occurred inadvertently when the operating systems for those computers were changed recently.

It could not be immediately determined whether Harris actually delivered the Orlando speech. But the text, along with other partisan documents found on her computer files, have renewed the long-simmering debate about her role in the historic election.

Was she the impartial arbiter that her supporters said she was -- a faithful guardian of Florida's election law? Or was she the partisan figure her critics imagined, working behind the scenes on Bush's behalf?

The New York Times reported in July that two political consultants helped craft Harris' public statements during the intense days of Florida's recount. The New York Times report questioned whether the Republican operatives influenced how Harris told elections officials to treat overseas absentee ballots.

In a statement released Tuesday, Harris said a parallel inquiry by her own data recovery expert was an unprecedented step of openness that uncovered no evidence of destroyed computer files and no partisan activity in her office "during the recount period," which lasted from Nov. 8 to December 13.

Her spokesman, David Host, said Harris was not worried about how her pre-election remarks on behalf of Bush would be interpreted. "Her policy is no apologies, no excuses, no regrets," Host said.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed the computer files provided by Ontrack and found no documents indicating Harris showed favoritism during the post-election period.

The only notable record from those 36 days was a schedule entitled "The Final Decision -- Crunch Week," which laid out Harris' schedule the week she certified the results of the election.

The itinerary included a "wardrobing" session on Monday, a rehearsal for a press conference on Tuesday and deciding how to handle overseas ballots on Wednesday.

Some said the secretary of state's words and deeds before Nov. 7 were just as important as those in the 36 days that followed.

"We think there are some grounds for concern there," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause of Florida, a government watchdog group. "It's our position that if an official is in a position to make decisions involving elections -- whether they are county supervisors or at the state level -- they have a responsibility to act in a non-partisan manner. Especially in this situation, where she later was in the position of making crucial decisions."

Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said the state should be reimbursed by the Bush campaign.

"We always suspected that she was moonlighting as secretary of state and was working for the Bush campaign, and now we have evidence," Poe said. "It's illegal to use state computers and state property for partisan purposes. Now we know what she was trying to hide."

In the past, the state Ethics Commission has found violations of state law when public officials have privately used stationery, postage or other resources purchased at public expense, said Phil Claypool, the commission's general counsel.

He added, however, that he could not comment on whether Harris' situation constituted a violation. "I don't have the facts for that," he said.

Host, the Harris spokesman, said the political portions of Harris' speeches were drafted on private computers and sent to state computers so they could be incorporated with the non-political elements.

"Neither of those were created in this office but they were sent to this office," Host said. He said he didn't know who drafted them.

Indeed, the speech contains passages where Harris sticks to her non-partisan role, several times emphasizing the importance of voter turnout. But it frequently veers into the political realm, at one point saying: "I have to tell you how great it was to campaign with Jeb (Gov. Jeb Bush, George W. Bush's brother) in the snows of New Hampshire last weekend, delivering Florida oranges door to door! The camaraderie (sic) and support we all felt was so positive . . . we hardly noticed the cold. We were working together for someone we believe in and felt wonderful. I want you to have that feeling too. I hope it will be "W'."

Other politically tinged documents in the files include a list of "talking points" written for a Harris speech on the March 14, 2000, presidential primary.

On that occasion, she was scheduled to deliver remarks that were complimentary of the future president. They ended with the comment: "And that is why I so strongly support his nomination by our party and his election in November."

In a third document are undated notes for a pre-election speech to some Collier County officials. Among the points Harris wanted to make: "Exciting opportunity to change Washington" and "New millennium in Florida for Republicans."

The records became an issue last month after the New York Times reported it had been told by Harris' office that some computer data had been erased.

Harris hired her own computer expert, William G. Morgan of Bradenton, who on Tuesday finished his report on the state of the hard drives. Morgan is director of software development for Indigo Investment Systems.

Host said Morgan's report, hundreds of pages long, shows that no public records on the computers had been destroyed. The report wasn't immediately available Tuesday evening, but Host said it would be distributed as soon as possible.

"We feel totally vindicated," Host said.

Harris' office has repeatedly stressed that allowing media organizations to scrutinize the hard drives was above and beyond her obligations as secretary of state. Besides, Holt has said, all public records that were on the computers in question had already been released to the media.

But Holt said Tuesday he wasn't certain if the Jan. 29 and March 14 political speeches were among the paper stacks released earlier or if they surfaced only after the media groups unearthed the records themselves on the hard drives.

"I'd have to go back and look at all the public records requests" to see if those two had been released, Host said.

But that wasn't the main issue, he said. "At this point that's speculation. . . . All public records were released."

- Times staff writers Barry Klein and Stephen Hegarty and researchers Deirdre Morrow and Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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