'Straw' Breaking Harris' Back | theledger.com

Illegally submitted MZM contributions to Harris totaled $50,000.

New York Times Regional Newspapers

SARASOTA -- When asked in June, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris didn't explain fully why a defense contractor was taking such interest in her re-election.

MZM Inc. employees, their spouses and the company's political action committee became Harris' biggest contributors in 2004, giving her $50,000. On one day alone, Harris collected 18 checks for $2,000 each from MZM employees and spouses.

At the time MZM offered the contributions, Harris said company officials told her they were donating to her because they planned to open a facility in Sarasota.

But new information disclosed Friday by the U.S. Justice Department shows Harris failed to mention one key detail back then -- the company's president had asked her to put in a request for federal funding for his company.

That money would have helped build a Navy counterintelligence facility in Sarasota.

Mitchell Wade, now at the center of a federal bribery investigation, took Harris to dinner at a posh Washington restaurant to make his pitch, according to records from the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that Harris made the defense funding request but failed to get it approved.

It's not the first time the Longboat Key Republican has had to defend herself for accepting illegal contributions from a company. In 1994, while running for the state senate, Harris collected $30,000 from a Sarasota company called Riscorp which, like MZM, was investigated for violating campaign laws.

Harris wasn't talking about the donations Saturday. A Harris spokeswoman refused to comment on why Harris didn't mention MZM's funding request in that June interview. At the time, it already was being reported that Wade had forced some employees to give to Harris.

Harris spokeswoman Kara Borie wrote in an e-mail response to the Herald-Tribune that Harris "did discuss the prospect of a defense plant coming to the district."

Even though Harris knew questions were being raised about MZM's donations during the summer of 2005, she didn't refund the money right away. Instead, she offered to give refunds to coerced donors. No one asked for their money back, so Harris held on to the funds.

It wasn't until two weeks ago that Harris rid herself of the money, donating the nearly 2-year-old donations to charity.

Wade's dealings with Harris and two other members of Congress are part of a federal investigation into bribery in Congress. Already, one member has resigned, and prosecutors say their investigation into Wade is not over.

On Friday, Wade admitted in federal court to bribing U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., with cash and gifts in return for help in winning government contracts. Cunningham, who campaigned for Harris in Sarasota months after MZM's donations, resigned from Congress three months ago.

Wade also admitted that much of the campaign money he sent Harris and U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., was raised illegally by a method called "straw contributing."

Straw contributing, a felony, is done by giving employees money, then having them make a contribution to a candidate.

Federal officials said Friday that of the $50,000 Harris received from MZM and its employees, $32,000 was given to her using the straw technique.

Neither Harris nor Goode appeared to know the donations were obtained illegally, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein said Friday.

Still, Harris accepted the multiple donations from MZM officials despite professing a sensitivity to bundled campaign donations. A federal investigation in 1997 looked into money she had received in 1994 from Riscorp.

"In hindsight, I wish I had been more aware of how much money they were giving me," Harris said in a 1997 interview. "When it comes from one corporation, I think there's always a problem of perception."

Harris probably should have known that something was fishy about the donations, particularly because of her history with Riscorp, said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.

But, MacManus said, Harris can't be blamed entirely for taking the money. The whole campaign finance system is rife with problems.

"You almost have to have a full-time investigative reporter on staff," MacManus said.

Jeremy Wallace is a reporter with The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.