Washington Post
November 16, 2000

Harris Hires Lawyers Linked to Jeb Bush

By Jo Becker and Dana Milbank

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. -- Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the official presiding over her state's disputed presidential election, has turned to a law firm with ties to Gov. Jeb Bush for legal advice and is privately meeting with prominent Republicans.

Harris hired the firm, Steel, Hector and Davis, last weekend to serve as her special counsel, said Jonathan Sjostrom, a lawyer at the firm who is advising Harris on litigation issues. Steel, Hector has many ties to the Florida political establishment and one of them is to Bush through Frank Jimenez, a former partner who is now Bushs deputy chief of staff. The firm also confirmed today that it is working with Mac Stipanovich, a Republican operative who ran Bush's 1994 gubernatorial campaign and was a top adviser to Harris in her 1998 campaign. While the firm did not say which case Stipanovich was involved in, Sjostrom did not deny Stipanovich is helping the firm represent Harris.

For an elected official such as Harris to hire outside experts in such a complex and high-stakes proceeding as the Florida election dispute is not unusual. Harris, a former real estate agent and state senator, has little experience in electoral law, and high turnover on her staff has left her with few in-house experts on the subject.

But Florida Democrats have made an issue of Harris's active support for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and cited every connection she has with him and his brother as evidence that she cannot administer state election law in a nonpartisan manner.

"It becomes clearer and clearer by every action she takes, every statement she makes, that she is still the co-chairman of the Bush campaign of Florida and not our secretary of state," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "It's my guess that she gets a substantial portion of her marching orders right out of Austin."

Even before her announcement tonight that she was denying the attempts by several Florida counties to submit hand recounts of last week's presidential vote, she has emerged as a hero to Republicans in the bitterly partisan aftermath of Florida's breathtakingly close presidential election.

Today two Republican political figures, state Sen. Tom Lee and former Florida U.S. representative Louis Frye Jr., visited Harris in her Capitol office. Frye said they did not talk about the elections, and Lee said he stopped by to show support for the embattled Harris. "She's kind of isolated herself from the party apparatus," Lee said. "I wanted to come by and tell an old friend that we feel for the situation she's in."

The bunches of flowers filling her anteroom testified to Harris's growing popularity among conservatives and Republican loyalists nationwide. Wallace and Deloris Klussman of Fredericksburg, Tex., sent her Texas yellow roses and a note that said "thanks for holding to the Florida word of law." Wallace Klussman is a property rights activist who runs a hunting operation. Another bunch was from Lee En Chung, a Sarasota developer and a Jeb Bush appointee to the state construction licensing board.

But J.D. Alexander, a state representative and Harris's first cousin, said the image of Harris as a conservative hero is groundless. "Katherine's always been, contrary to what some of the liberal attack dogs want to say, pretty independent in her judgment," he said. "I've heard a lot of Republican House members who say she's been tough on them on decisions she's made. She's by the book, according to the statutes."

Harris and her advisers in the secretary of state's office did not return telephone calls and messages today.

The multimillionaire granddaughter of a cattle and citrus magnate, Harris, 43, has been a controversial figure in Florida politics. She was elected secretary of state in 1998 after defeating the incumbent, Sandra Mortham, in the Republican primary. Mortham, who ran for her old office after being dropped as Bush's running mate when it emerged that her office spent money intended for a history museum for golf balls and other items with Mortham's name on them, this week described Harris's campaign against her as "very aggressive, much more aggressive than we had seen on the Florida scene.

Last winter, Harris traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for the Texas governor in the state's primary, and with Jeb Bush, was a delegate to the Republican convention. She recruited retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., a prominent Bush supporter who spoke to the GOP convention and taped phone messages for Bush in Florida, to do a taxpayer-funded get-out-the-vote commercial just before the election.

Harris's job could end in 2002; a change in the state Constitution will eliminate her position in two years as an elected office at the end of her term. For Harris to stay in her job after 2002, the governor would have to appoint her, but in the past, she has mentioned her interest in running for the Senate.

The connections between Harris and Bush loyalists illustrate the incestuous nature of Florida politics, particularly here in the state capital, where it seems everybody has some link to everybody else. Steel, Hector, for example, has had plenty of prominent Democrats in its ranks, including Janet Reno and Jim Krog, who was chief of staff to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Stipanovich, now a lobbyist, served as chief of staff to former Florida governor Bob Martinez, a Republican. Stipanovich's partner in the law firm of Fowler White, Ken Sukhia, is a lawyer for the Bush campaign who has represented the Texas governor in a Gadsden County vote recount. Sukhia, a former U.S. attorney under President George Bush, objected during a recount when election officials added ballots that had been disqualified. "I've been over there with the [Bush] legal team and so forth trying to be of assistance where I can be," said Sukhia, though he said he wasn't aware of Stipanovich's activities.

Stipanovich, who did not return phone calls today, is close to both Bush and Harris. "He is a friend of hers who helped her in her campaign," said Van Poole, a former Republican state senator and party chairman who is a Tallahassee lobbyist. "He knows her really well, has been kind of her adviser." Alexander said Harris "didn't have a lot of Tallahassee folks who stood with her initially but he [Stipanovich] was one of them."

In addition to her outside lawyers, Harris is also said to be working closely with her own staff, particularly Clay Roberts, the election chief, and Debbie Kearney, her general counsel. Roberts and Kearney, who once worked for Dexter Douglass, a former Chiles official who is now a member of Vice President Gore's legal team, are not viewed as partisan figures.

But as Harris makes decisions that could determine the next president, she is doing it with relatively new senior staff members. Since Harris took office, her deputy secretary and election division director both have departed. Her chief of staff, Benjamin McKay, was her state Senate aide and moved to the secretary of state's office with Harris in 1999.

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