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Tom Lyons

Rep. Harris misled us; now we know why

Let's not make this fuzzy: U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris lied.

Harris repeatedly misled journalists and the public about her conversations with defense contractor Mitchell Wade. I see no other way to look at this.

Wade, one target in a long federal investigation that is still under way, has now pleaded guilty to bribing one member of Congress and making illegal campaign contributions to two others, all to seek the kind of defense contracts that made MZM Inc. so profitable.

I wrote two columns in the past about the $34,000 in illegal campaign contributions Harris accepted -- without knowing they were illegal, it seems -- from MZM, its employees and some of their spouses.

But for months, there was a mystery: What the heck had Wade, MZM's CEO, wanted from Harris in return for that money?

Harris has claimed, to me and other journalists, that she didn't have any idea. She insisted that she had assumed all those MZM-connected people -- who didn't live in Florida and whose $2,000 checks arrived in bundles -- just liked her stands on the issues and wanted to see her re-elected.

She did say Wade had been considering opening a plant of some sort in the Sarasota area. But she said she knew no details and didn't know exactly how that might inspire MZM to break the law to give her so much money, or why it would inspire MZM employees and spouses to send her as much as $4,000 each from their own wallets.

Even after learning Wade had bribed another congressman and had used illegal means to make far bigger donations to Harris than the law allows, she said she still had no idea what the heck MZM's motive was for giving her all that money.

It sure seemed odd. Local officials in Sarasota might be thrilled to have a legitimate defense contractor bring good jobs here. But what need was there for MZM to try to charm Harris with so much campaign money that it required an illegal conspiracy, and coerced employee donations, to deliver it?

Now we know.

MZM CEO Wade's plea agreement tells us that he eventually told Harris -- referred to only as "Representative B" in the court document -- exactly what MZM wanted from her.

Wade, the man who handed her a bundle of $2,000 checks, within the year took our Representative B to dinner at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Citronelle, and asked her to help the company get a defense contract. It involved work in Navy counterintelligence.

Harris dutifully carried his funding proposal to colleagues in Congress, no matter that she knew little about the proposal or whether MZM could deliver anything of value to the nation.

No wonder she didn't want to tell us about that help to Wade.

Choosing Harris was probably a mistake for Wade. Though her public image gave some people an exaggerated notion of her influence with the Republican power structure, she had little clout on defense spending. She also filed the MZM appropriations proposal after a key deadline. MZM did not get the money.

Eventually, word of MZM's sleazy business practices inspired an investigation. It revealed Wade's use of bribery and illegal campaign donations.

Harris is like a magnet for illegal campaign contributions, going back to long before she went to Congress. It seems she is so happy to get campaign money that all red flags remain invisible to her.

This is how it worked in the Riscorp scandal, starting back when Harris was just a rookie would-be state senator.

Riscorp was a new but fast-growing workers' compensation insurance company. Owner Bill Griffin eventually did time in a federal country club prison, but it was probably well worth it. His political contributions, some legal and many not, had greased the skids of Riscorp's fast rise and brief success that made him very much a multimillionaire.

The help Griffin got in the Legislature, from Harris in particular, was priceless. Harris -- who got the most illegal money from Griffin -- said she had no idea the checks her campaign got from so many Riscorp employees and affiliated lawyers and spouses were part of an illegal contributions scheme.

She is a slow learner. The MZM thing is déjà vu all over again, except that she trumped her last act. Last time, she at least acknowledged she had backed a bill that helped Riscorp. This time, she denied helping MZM or even being asked to.

Wade underestimated her ability to help him get a defense contract, but it seems he was right in figuring she would be happy to help a generous donor, and keep it quiet.

Tom Lyons can be contacted at or (941) 361-4964

Last modified: March 01. 2006 6:12AM


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