By S.V. Dáte, Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau Tuesday, July 17, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Democrats Monday called on Gov. Jeb Bush to initiate a criminal investigation into "potential illegalities" by Secretary of State Katherine Harris in the erasing of documents from state computers after last year's presidential election recount.
State party Chairman Bob Poe also asked Bush to explain the nature of about 100 phone calls from him and his staff to the campaign of his brother -- despite Bush's public recusal from election-related events.
Bush's office said the governor, traveling in South America, had not seen Poe's letter and could not comment on it. Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur said it was time for Democrats to stop dwelling on the election results.
"It's always painful to lose an election. But everyone except the national media and die-hard liberals is ready to move on," she said.
"Floridians are prepared to move on," Poe wrote. "But your office and the office of Secretary Harris appear to have hidden important facts from them."
Poe's letter followed the weekend publication of articles investigating Bush's and Harris' roles in the election aftermath that ultimately gave George W. Bush the presidency with a 537-vote victory in Florida.
The New York Times reported that Harris allowed prominent Republican operatives to set up a "war room" in her Capitol offices to help coordinate the Bush campaign's strategy regarding absentee ballot challenges. The paper reported that Harris' office acknowledged deleting some files from the computers used by the operatives -- a possible violation of Florida's public records laws.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Jeb Bush and several top staff members used state telephones to call his brother's campaign staff at least 95 times in the five weeks after the election. Some of the calls went to George W. Bush personally and his top campaign staff, while others went to lawyers hired to represent the campaign during the recount. The paper reported that after its inquiries began, Jeb Bush and several of his staff reimbursed the state for some of the calls -- Bush, for instance, paid back $5.11.
Poe asked Bush for a full accounting of those calls. "Did the governor or his staff illegally work on the George W. Bush campaign on state time?" Poe wrote. "Why did you wait until the calls were uncovered by the media to reimburse the state?"
Poe also asked Bush to direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate Harris' admitted elimination of documents from computers used by consultants assisting her -- possibly in violation of Florida's strict public records laws that make some offenses a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by as much as a year in jail.
Harris spokesman David Host said that all public records as defined by Florida law were preserved and those requested by The New York Times were turned over to its reporters. "Just because something is created on a state computer does not mean it's a public record," he said, citing a case from Pinellas County Circuit Court in which a judge ruled that personal e-mails sent on a government computer were not public records.
"All public records were preserved. No public records were destroyed," Host said, but he added that he did not know exactly which documents were destroyed when the borrowed computers were returned to the offices from which they came.
He also disputed The New York Times' use of the phrase "war room." "The so-called 'war room' was two word processors in the conference room," Host said.