Associated Press
November 13, 2000

Harris No Stranger To Controversy

By Dara Kam

TALLAHASSEE, Fla (AP) -- A Harvard-educated blueblood from one of Florida's wealthiest families, Secretary of State Katherine Harris is no stranger to controversy.

She's been investigated for campaign finance violations and criticized for spending state money jetting around the world, spending up to $500 a night for hotel rooms in Washington. She's also been one of George W. Bush's most prominent political supporters, campaigning for him in Florida and elsewhere.

Harris placed herself in the middle of the increasingly partisan struggle over Florida's 25 electoral votes Monday with her public announcement that all 67 counties are required by law to wrap up their recounts by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

She sits as one of six elected members on the Florida Cabinet, which with Gov. Jeb Bush, decides on issues ranging from the mundane to the momentous affecting schools, the environment and other statewide concerns.

As secretary of state, Harris oversees elections, the state's historical and cultural resources and also keeps the state's public records. She makes $106,000 a year.

''For what is probably the easiest of the Cabinet positions, she's made it awful difficult,'' said state Democratic Party spokesman Tony Welch.

In her first two years on the job, Harris spent $100,000 in Florida tax dollars on foreign trade missions to places like Barbados and Brazil as well as the Sydney Olympics. Her travel expenses were significantly higher than the other five Cabinet members and three times more than Gov. Jeb Bush.

Harris defended her travel, saying she has brought millions of dollars of international trade to the state and established cultural ties such as a cooperative ballet between the state and Mexico.

Sandra Mortham, the incumbent who lost to Harris in a nasty Republican primary in 1998, said every secretary of state emphasizes their own key areas of concern.

''For me, it was elections, and it was to get the elections online and on the Internet,'' Mortham said. ''Katherine has decided that she wanted to move the office more into the area of international relations.''

Ben McKay, Harris' chief of staff, said Harris was too busy with Monday's court hearing to return calls.

In 1994, Harris became implicated in a campaign finance scheme surrounding her first run for public office. She was forced to reimburse $20,000 after state investigators discovered that employees of Riscorp, Inc., an insurer, were improperly reimbursed for their contributions to her 1994 Senate campaign.

She said she had no knowledge that anything was amiss with the contributions.

This year, Harris approved a taxpayer-financed public service announcement featuring retired Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, a Bush ally, urging Floridians to vote. She received criticism for spending the public's $30,000 to finance the ads, which aired during the final month of the presidential campaign.

McKay said Harris' office asked Schwartzkopf, as a prominent Floridian, to make the ads months ago, after Gloria Estefan and Tiger Woods turned down the request.

Harris, 43, earned a degree in history from the all-female Agnes Scott College in Georgia, received a master's degree in public administration from Harvard and she studied art and Spanish in Madrid, and philosophy and religion in Geneva.

Her grandfather, citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin, served as a longtime legislator. He was also a friend of former state Republican Party chairman, Tom Slade, who hand-picked Harris for her Senate run. Her cousin, J.D. Alexander, is a state representative.

The Cabinet job, one that has been largely ceremonial, is being abolished after Harris' current term, which expires in January 2003.

Harris, who is married to businessman Anders Ebbeson, listed her net worth as more than $6.5 million as of December 1999, according to her latest financial disclosure.

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