WASHINGTON — When it became clear that the disputed Florida election could deliver the White House to his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush immediately recused himself from any official role in the recount, promising to avoid even the "slightest appearance of a conflict of interest."
He directed his staff to spend their time on government business and pledged to do the same. Vowing that no political work would be done on the taxpayers' dime, six staffers took unpaid leaves to volunteer on the recount.
Despite that hands-off policy, the Florida governor's office in Tallahassee made 95 telephone calls to the George W. Bush presidential campaign, its advisors, lawyers and staffers during the 36-day recount period, records show. At least 10 calls came from an office number used primarily by Jeb Bush, including one call to a private line in George W. Bush's gubernatorial office in Austin.
Another call from Jeb Bush's number went to Karl Rove, his brother's campaign strategist. One went to the Texas governor's chief of staff, Clay Johnson. Another went to Michigan Gov. John Engler, who soon flew to Florida to monitor the ballot recount in Broward County. Additional calls were logged to cell phones assigned to Bush campaign staffers.
In an e-mail this week to The Times, Jeb Bush said he could not recall the purpose of the calls. "I have no clue what these calls were about," he wrote.
"They most likely were return phone calls," Bush added. "In the alternative, they could have been my assistant passing on a request for an invitation to speak or an autographed picture. They might have been answering a request on where to eat in Tallahassee for the hoards [sic] of Austin folks that made their way here. They could have been for many reasons. I don't remember."
The exact nature and extent of Jeb Bush's involvement in the Florida recount effort remains unclear, though there is no evidence to suggest he did anything improper. The governor, who served as state chairman for his brother's presidential campaign, has refused all interview requests to discuss his role.
"As he said repeatedly, while he recused himself from any involvement in what happened after Nov. 7, he did not recuse himself from his role as a brother," said Katie Baur, Bush's communications director.
But some supporters of former Democratic nominee Al Gore have questioned whether Jeb Bush used his position to influence events behind the scenes after the election. It now appears he was more involved than he has publicly acknowledged.
The governor visited the state GOP headquarters in Tallahassee that functioned as the Bush campaign command center for the recount at least once, for example. He also dialed into at least one conference call with campaign operatives, aides said. And days after the recount ended, he hired Kathleen Shanahan, the Bush-Cheney deputy campaign manager, as his chief of staff in Tallahassee.
"I talked to him every few days," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. Although Cardenas said the governor "took himself out of the strategy end of things," he said Bush was kept abreast of developments in each of the state's 67 counties and given a "heads up on litigation."
Randy Enwright, a political consultant to the George W. Bush campaign in Florida, said he spoke to Jeb Bush "a couple of times" during the recount period but said he did not recall the substance of the conversations. "He was trying to be as objective and fair as possible," Enwright said. "But he obviously cared about getting his brother elected."
In an effort to better understand Jeb Bush's role, The Times filed a public records request to obtain his personal cell phone records, the visitors' log to his mansion, his daily calendar and his phone messages during the recount.
The governor's staff contends no such records were kept, but they provided more than 200 pages of bills from November and December detailing long-distance phone calls made from the governor's office.
"Let's put this in perspective," Baur said. "The governor's office on average makes nearly 15,000 to 20,000 calls a month, and if there were any personal or political calls made during that surreal, once-in-a-lifetime, insane couple of months, they were reimbursed."
Jeb Bush reimbursed the state treasury a total of $5.11 after The Times sought access to his records. His chief of staff similarly wrote a check for $14.25. One top aide paid $12. Another sent $10. Neither Bush nor his aides provided any documentation to explain how many or which calls were not state business.
The phone records show 34 calls from the governor's office to the Bush for President campaign office in Miami. Six were made Nov. 22, the day the Miami-Dade canvassing board abruptly abandoned its manual recount.
The governor's office also made a call that day to the Miami law firm that employed Miguel De Grandy, who represented the Bush campaign before the canvassing board. De Grandy did not return phone calls from The Times.