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    Political pull-togethers hide the skullduggery

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- After leading by 134 votes in the primary, Dave Miller lost by 1,218 in the runoff for House Dist. 54, where term limits had tolled on 22-year veteran Rep. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. Barely two-thirds as many people voted for Miller in the runoff as had voted for him before. John Carassas, the winner, lost votes too in the interim but less than half as many. You can't blame Miller for wondering how much the trial lawyers' last-weekend attack ad had to do with it.

    "Florida Consumer Advocates," the Pensacola return address on a mailed pamphlet that depicted two elderly people worrying about their electric rates, is a front for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, and its recent filing with the IRS confirms that.

    The mailer used a newspaper article on Florida Power Corp.'s request for a rate increase, a quotation from a St. Petersburg Times editorial and information about his Tallahassee contributors to imply that Miller, a retired Florida Power executive with a "generous pension," would help it raise its rates.

    It was an adroit example of how facts can appear to be more than the sum of their parts. Legislators don't vote on utility rate increases. What Miller had told the editorial board was that he wanted to have a say in deregulation of the electric industry.

    However, that could lead to higher rates, and as the utilities were supporting Miller, the inference was not altogether out of bounds.

    What was grossly unfair was to blindside him on the last weekend with charges he had no time to answer, financed by a shadowy out-of-town lobby that was spending a great deal more than the $500 that it could have legally contributed to Carassas directly. But this is commonplace today thanks to courts that can't tell between paid speech and free speech and don't care if the former drives out the latter.

    Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which had endorsed Miller and given him $500, noted that just two years ago, anyone sending a mailing like that would have had to forewarn both candidates that it was coming and what it would cost. (Miller, I'm told, had found out anyhow. But he vetoed a counterattack that would have depicted Carassas' supporters as sharks.)

    As I was about to find on the IRS Web site, the Florida Education Association, the PCTA's parent union in Tallahassee, whose own PACs had given $1,000 to Miller, had also contributed $50,000 to Florida Consumer Advocates. That's the same group that a month or so later would trash not only their guy Miller, but also State Rep. Janegale Boyd, D-Monticello, whom the FEA was backing in the Dist. 3 Senate race.

    To that news, Moore responded, "Sometimes you bomb your own. I hate it all."

    Florida Consumer Advocates disclosed the FEA contribution in a Sept. 6 report itemizing $404,800 in receipts. All but the teachers' money appeared to come from lawyers.

    Officials at both groups said the teachers' money was restricted to use against Sen. Anna P. Cowin, R-Leesburg, and Rep. D. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who was running for an open Senate seat. Both won their primaries, but Cowin has a Democratic opponent Nov. 7.

    "None of it was to be applied to any other races at all or to any other records of legislators," said Sumner. "That was the singular condition for their money."

    Why did the teachers have to launder their attack money through the trial lawyers? How could they be sure that such a highly fungible commodity did not indirectly contribute to defeating Miller and Boyd?

    "There are a lot of reasons why people who are trying to elect somebody put themselves in a pull-together to maximize their effort, not the least of which are the financial ramifications," said Cathy Kelly, political director at the FEA. "It's a heck of a lot more economical than when you're doing things in a smaller way."

    She said the FEA was confident the money went only to television ads attacking Constantine and Cowin over a law, since repealed, allowing the sale of drivers' license photos to a national database.

    Nearly all legislators had voted for that bill, including some the trial lawyers and teachers are supporting, and many people considered the ad exaggerated and unfair. But it wasn't a last-minute attack.

    "I wish all of this were a hell of a lot more civilized than this is," Kelly said. "The problem is that no one can afford to disarm."

    The court decision that struck down Florida's fair-warning law came in a case brought by Florida Right to Life, which disposed also of the law requiring all independent spenders to file financial reports with the state. Legislative leaders agreed to fix that by narrowing it to groups whose "major purpose" is to campaign for or against a candidate or issue. The bill died an unexplained death. Leaders have promised to enact it -- next year. For now, only federal tax law requires independent spenders to account for themselves, and its reporting deadlines are too remote to shed timely light on Florida skullduggery. The trial lawyers say they reported early only because they misunderstood instructions.

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