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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Jeb Bush's Aides Took Time Off to Help GOP

Ethics: Though the Florida governor removed himself from process, six of his top advisors spent unpaid days working on the recount battle.

November 17, 2000|LISA GETTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Even though Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has recused himself from any role in the recount of ballots that could put his brother in the White House, six of his top aides have taken time off in the last 10 days to help the Republican effort.

None of the senior advisors--his deputy general counsel, four other members of his legal staff and his press secretary--has been paid by the state while helping the George W. Bush campaign in its postelection battle. But their very presence in the recount fight appears to undercut Jeb Bush's contention that he removed himself from the process to avoid even "the slightest public [conflict] of interest."

"The stakes are high, and the circumstances demand responsibility by both political parties," the governor said last week.

But his aides say there is no reason why they should forget their party affiliations.

"I was a Republican before I worked for the governor. It's no secret that all of us are Republicans. Please, we work for Jeb Bush," said press secretary Katie Baur, who took three unpaid days last week because most of that time was spent working on the election battle. On at least two of those days, however, she identified herself to reporters as Jeb Bush's press secretary and took messages for him.

"I did not feel it was appropriate to be answering and responding to political questions while I was serving as his official communications director," she said, referring to her decision to take unpaid time off.

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a former Florida governor, said he would not have allowed his gubernatorial aides "under these circumstances" to take the time off.

"The general counsel's office is supposed to represent the people of the state, not the people of the political party of the governor," he said. "I'm concerned about the high degree of politicization of this process. I think Jeb showed good judgment in personally recusing himself."

It is unclear when Baur and the other Bush advisors decided to take their days off as unpaid--a move intended to avoid criticism that taxpayers were paying for their support of the governor's political efforts.

Series of Contact by Jeb Bush Aides

On Thursday, Jeb Bush's personnel officer sent a memo about "leave without pay actions" to the governor's chief of staff. "Note that under Florida law, these individuals could have taken annual leave but have chosen to take leave without pay to avoid any appearance of problems," Sandra Brooks wrote.

Bush officially recused himself on Nov. 8. Before he did, sometime early that morning, probably around 3 a.m., either the governor or "someone speaking to the governor" phoned Clay Roberts, head of the state's election division, and asked, "How does the recount work?" Roberts recalled Thursday.

Roberts said that was his last contact with Gov. Jeb Bush. But it was not his last contact with Bush's staff.

Frank Jimenez, an attorney on Jeb Bush's staff, has phoned Roberts several times since the recount effort began. Jimenez has been on leave since Nov. 8.

Roberts said Jimenez called him Sunday, asking whether he had yet received a written request from the chairman of the Palm Beach County canvassing board for an opinion on whether a hand recount could be conducted if the mistakes on the ballots were caused by voter confusion, not machine malfunction.

Roberts said he told Jimenez that the Florida secretary of state's legal staff had already begun working on such an opinion after hearing the Palm Beach chairman say on television that he wanted one. But Roberts said he told Jimenez he had not yet received a written request from the chairman for it. Jimenez then told him that "we" were going to request one instead.

It wasn't until Roberts got a fax from the Republican Party of Florida seeking the opinion that he knew for sure who Jimenez was working for. "When he said he was going to request an opinion, I assumed he was on leave because I knew he couldn't do it for the governor's office," Roberts said.

"He's called me a couple more times with technical questions: 'How do absentee ballots work?' " he said.

Unpaid Time Spent Advising Jeb Bush

Jimenez did not return a phone call on Thursday. Bush deputy general counsel Reginald Brown refused to comment on his postelection role. Two other aides who took time off, attorneys Hayden Dempsey and Gregory Munson, did not return calls.

"I wouldn't think that there would be anything wrong with whatever time I take off," said attorney Daniel Woodring, who took 20 hours of unpaid leave. He would not say what he did during that time. "I'm really not going to talk about anything related to this."

Press secretary Baur said many of the lawyers spent most of their unpaid time giving advice to Jeb Bush on his recusal and on the lawsuits that have been filed over the recount.

"In an abundance of caution, these counsel also included that time as unpaid leave," he said. "Most of their time was spent briefing the governor on his official capacity but on what could be termed political issues."

Sen. Graham said he thought that Secretary of State Katherine Harris should have also disqualified herself from making recount decisions. Harris has officially rebuffed bids by Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore for manual ballot recounts.

Harris campaigned for GOP candidate George W. Bush and served as one of eight co-chairs of his Florida campaign. One of Harris' former campaign advisors is now helping the Republican campaign.

Tallahassee lobbyist J. M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who ran Jeb Bush's failed 1994 bid to be Florida governor, has called election director Roberts "a couple of times on the process," Roberts said.

*

Times staff writers Eric Bailey and Mark Fineman contributed to this story.

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