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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Cunningham Bribery Scandal Expands to Florida Rep. Katherine Harris

Rep. Katherine Harris (FL-13) has drawn increasing scrutiny in the two weeks since former MZM Inc. owner Mitch Wade pleaded guilty to bribing former congressman Duke Cunningham and to funneling $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Harris and an additional $46,000 illegally to Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode.

Problem #1: Straw Donations

At $50,000, defense contracting firm MZM was the largest source of contributions to Harris in 2003-4 by a factor of four. Despite being handed the checks personally by Wade, Harris denied knowing that some of the contributions might have been illegal "straw donations". Maybe she should have.

As William March and Keith Epstein report in the Tampa Bay Tribune, Harris had received the same kind of illegal straw donations 10 years previously. During her 1994 campaign for the Florida state Senate, Harris received more than $20,000 from employees of Riscorp Insurance. Four years later, five executives for Riscorp were convicted of illegally funneling nearly $400,000 in straw donations to various state candidates. The company's donations to Harris were exceeded only by its donations to Tom Gallagher, then the state Insurance Commissioner.

A Riscorp memo in the court file states that Harris's campaign manager asked Riscorp to issue the checks from different addresses so that it would be more difficult to trace them back to the company. In order to exculpate herself in the Riscorp scandal, Harris had gone so far as to propose legislation which would limit bundling of contributions by corporations and their subsidiaries.

Ten years later, a defense contractor personally hands her a bundle of checks from his employees and their spouses, and no red flags were raised, no alarm bells went off for Harris.

Why?

Problem #2: Bribery?
Wade handed Harris the checks for her 2004 House campaign sometime in March 2004. In early 2005, Wade had dinner with Harris in Washington D.C. At the dinner, Wade asked Harris to help him obtain funding for a counterintelligence project run and MZM facility in Florida, and coincidentally enough also offered to hold a fundraiser for Harris's campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Several months later, in April, Harris amended her earlier request for project funding to include $10 million for the MZM projects.

In June, the story broke that Wade had bought Cunningham's house only to sell it a few months later for $700,000 less than he paid for it, in effect a gift of $700,000 to Cunningham. As Jeremy Wallace reports in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, when asked about the MZM contributions to her at the time, Harris said she got them because MZM told her they were planning on opening up a facility in Harris's district.

She neglected to say that she had submitted a request for $10 million in federal funding for the company. That seems a significant detail to omit at the beginning of an investigation into possible bribery by members of Congress.

Why the omission, if she had nothing to hide?

Problem #3: Campaign Contributions Reward the Katherine Harrises of the World
Mitch Wade would have been much less able to buy himself a seat at the dinner table with Ms. Harris if he and his employees could only have given contributions in amounts of a $100. But with campaign contributions limits at $2,000 per election, Wade was quickly able to build up MZM's contributions to a level noticeable by Harris, which bought him at least her ear.

Perhaps more importantly, there would be a much greater chance that the Katherine Harrises of the world would face opponents who represented not the viewpoints of the wealthy and corrupt, but the perspectives of a cross-section of their constituents. Until we change the role money plays in getting people to Washington, we won't be able to do a thing about the way money leaves Washington.

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