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Sunshine Network's popular show has abrupt ending in politics

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 19, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- For six years, Robert Kerrigan, a Pensacola trial lawyer, spent freely of his money to produce and star on a statewide consumer call-in show, Law Talk Live, on the Sunshine cable network. By accounts, it was very popular.

But then Kerrigan began attacking Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature and other Republican targets. He's no longer on the network, and the choice wasn't his.

Kerrigan's Web site -- www.lawtalklive.com -- is still running, however, and claims that the network "had little choice" and gave in to "relentless pressure applied by Gov. Bush," who "could have made the network's life "a living hell.' The governor's aides say he did not ask that the show be canceled. Steve Hull, a Tallahassee lobbyist who doubles as Sunshine's program director, says the decision was his. He insists it is "absolutely not true" that pressure from the governor's office had anything to do with it.

"They never asked me to take the show off, or put any pressure at all," Hull said last week. The governor's staff asked only "what the show is about" and whether they could respond to its criticism.

Kerrigan says he did offer time to reply.

However, internal e-mail files, released Friday in response to a public records request, reflect the administration's mounting irritation.

It began, ironically, with an e-mail last Feb. 28 from a Kerrigan employee to Liz Hirst, the governor's press secretary. A caller had asked whether a bill to privatize elevator inspections would benefit a company partly owned by Bush's uncle, W.T. "Bucky" Bush. (The bill later passed.) Kerrigan's aide asked whether the governor had a policy regarding the awarding of state contracts to kinfolk. Hirst relayed the question to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

The question was somewhat off point. The legislation doesn't provide for state contracts. Rather, it lets private building owners opt to have the companies that maintain their elevators certify that they are safe and waive inspection by the state. (Whether this is a good idea is a separate question. And yes, Bush's uncle is in that business.)

Somehow, Kerrigan never got an answer. Another aide e-mailed the question to the governor's office again on April 11 and yet again on June 28. The third message also warned that the next show would fault Bush's performance on social services. By then, the governor and his staff were well aware of him, and he was poking a hornet's nest.

Bush and two of his aides discussed him in e-mails April 11 and 12 with the governor remarking, "This is the show that I referred to." Hirst replied, "We will keep an eye on this program." On April 23, Hirst told the governor she was watching the show and it was "not particularly favorable." Later that day, she told the governor she had left a voicemail for Hull "to see if he watched the show today . . . emphasized he (Kerrigan) editorializes much more than gives legal advice -- he spent a lot of time focusing on the governor's politics . . . his views of them."

On June 28, Hirst replied to Kerrigan's aide that she could find only one previous message, which had been referred to the DBPR. She offered to telephone about the matter. That same afternoon, however, Communications Director Katie Baur, Hirst's boss, went over Kerrigan's head in a e-mail to Hull.

"This guy contacted us ONCE in February and check out the next show. COME ON!!!!!," she wrote to Hull, who was Gov. Bob Graham's press secretary.

Kerrigan shook the stick again in a July 9 e-mail to Hirst: "When you failed to respond we discovered what you surely knew, the Governor's uncle owns the business as reported by the St. Pete Times. This did not seem all that complicated. Are you prohibited from asking the Governor when there is an accusation of conflict of interest and inside dealing?"

Baur replied, offering to discuss the issue in person with Kerrigan the next day, but he never called.

Late in July, Hull pulled the plug on Law Talk Live. Kerrigan concedes that he refused to hew to the original format.

"We monitored on a regular basis," Hull told me. "What became interesting was there began to be more of an emphasis on non-legal issues, but people would keep calling on legal issues. We had several discussions with him over the months, he just said he did not want to go back to that format."

And indeed, Kerrigan doesn't blame Hull or Sunshine. He blames Bush.

"He is like the Romans," says Kerrigan. "He gets rid of opposition very, very early."

All the same, the episode raises sobering questions about the political vulnerability and instincts of Florida's cable industry, which owns a minor stake in the Fox-run Sunshine Network, and is particularly sensitive to the threat of taxation. It also raises questions of Hull's dual role. His major lobbying client, the Florida Opthalmalogical Society, is pushing a hotly controversial bill restricting post-surgery referrals to optometrists and could ill afford to lose Bush's good will.

Cable was supposed to foster robust political debate. So much for promises.

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