ABC's Donvan misrepresented scope of Harris controversy, ignored her request for MZM appropriation

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

On ABC's Nightline, correspondent John Donvan misrepresented the scope of the controversy about ties between Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) and disgraced defense contractor Mitchell Wade. Donvan reported that Wade "made illegal contributions to her campaign" but added: "[T]hough she gave the money back, it's what reporters in Florida keep asking about. Even this week it came up." In fact, in the past week, while Florida newspapers have continued to raise questions about the illegal campaign contributions, they have also focused on Harris's subsequent request to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for a $10 million earmark that would have benefited Wade's company.

On the March 21 broadcast of ABC's Nightline, correspondent John Donvan misrepresented the scope of the controversy about ties between Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) and disgraced defense contractor Mitchell Wade. During the segment -- which featured an interview with Harris -- Donvan reported that Wade "made illegal contributions to her campaign" but added: "[T]hough she gave the money back, it's what reporters in Florida keep asking about. Even this week it came up." In fact, in the past week, while Florida newspapers have continued to raise questions about the illegal campaign contributions, they have also focused on Harris's subsequent request to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for a $10 million earmark that would have benefited Wade's company. Donvan did not mention -- either during the interview or during any other part of his report -- Harris's attempt to win work for Wade's company, MZM Inc.

Donvan's failure to note the controversy surrounding Harris's efforts on behalf of Wade coincides with Harris's reported avoidance of questions raised by local media. The Tampa Tribune reported on March 18 that Harris has been "dodging questions about her ties to a convicted defense contractor [and] is sticking to carefully coordinated public appearances." As Media Matters for America noted, Harris was interviewed by Fox News host Sean Hannity -- who is actively supporting her campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) -- on the March 15 edition of Hannity & Colmes. Like Donvan, Hannity did not ask about Harris's request for the appropriation that would have benefited MZM.

Wade -- MZM's president and CEO -- pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges in connection with the bribery scandal involving former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA). Cunningham resigned from Congress on November 28, 2005, after pleading guilty to accepting millions of dollars worth of bribes from defense contractors, including Wade, in exchange for help in winning military contracts. According to a February 25 Washington Post report, it was the Cunningham bribery scandal that first shed light on Wade's relationship with Harris. The Post also reported that Wade has admitted to trying -- in the Post's words -- "to curry favor" with Harris and Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), pleading guilty to election fraud "for making nearly $80,000 in illegal campaign contributions," of which Harris received $32,000. The Post reported that, according to the court documents, Wade did so "in hopes that they [Harris and Goode] ... would 'earmark' federal money for MZM. Wade gave the funds for the donations to 19 of his employees and their spouses, who then wrote $2,000 checks to the members." A March 2 Tampa Tribune article reported that "[a]t the time, MZM, its officers and its political action committee were Harris' largest single source of campaign money."

In his report, Donvan noted that Wade "has pleaded guilty to bribing" Cunningham and that he made illegal contributions to Harris. As Donvan reported, Harris has said she did not know Wade's campaign contribution's were illegal and has reportedly donated them to charity. Telling viewers that the illegal contributions are "what reporters in Florida keep asking about," Donvan played footage -- without any additional explanation -- of a Florida journalist asking Harris: "Are you concerned about the Michael [sic] Wade fallout? And being linked to something that involved bribery?"

But Donvan's suggestion that the illegal contributions are the extent of Harris's role in the controversy is false. The Associated Press reported on March 3 that in Wade's plea agreement, he "acknowledged dining with Harris at a Washington restaurant in 2005 to discuss a possible fundraiser for her and obtaining funding for a Navy counterintelligence program involving his company." Harris requested the $10 million appropriation for the counterintelligence program, but it was not approved. Donvan's report made no mention of Harris's request.

In its March 18 article, The Tampa Tribune summarized what it called the "MZM Affair":

Meanwhile, Harris' Washington office issued a statement Thursday denying any connection between the illegal contributions and a special congressional spending request she made for $10 million in tax dollars to benefit Wade's company, MZM Inc.

[...]

Harris met with Wade on at least two occasions in 2004 and 2005. A member of her staff left to work at MZM about the time Wade was seeking the special request for funding, known as an earmark.

Wade acknowledged personally giving checks to Harris from MZM employees he had reimbursed and, over dinner, discussing the project for which he wanted special funding. He also discussed possibly holding a fundraiser for her.

In the new statement from Harris' congressional office, she said she championed the MZM project - a U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service project to be built in Sarasota - because of the economic benefit to her district.

"I believed it would bring new high-skill, high-wage jobs to Sarasota," the statement says.

"Simply put, I did not request funding for this project in exchange for any contributions and I acted in the best interests of my constituents."

The Sarasota project was never funded.

In Virginia, Rep. Goode helped broker a deal in Martinsville that ultimately brought MZM and good-paying jobs there. The company got a $1 million building with no strings attached. State grants totaling $500,000 helped offset Martinsville's losses on the building.

Though viewers would not know it from Donvan's report, Florida media outlets have repeatedly noted Harris's refusal to answer questions about her request for the appropriation. In its March 18 article detailing the controversy, The Tampa Tribune noted that at a March 17 appearance in Palmetto, Florida, a reporter "asked a question: Why did she go to dinner with a man who is at the center of a national campaign finance scandal, defense contractor Mitchell Wade." According to the Tribune, "Harris did not respond to the question, and an assistant quickly intervened, guiding the candidate into a car."

A March 17 Gainesville Sun article noted that Harris's interview with Hannity -- like Donvan's report -- did not address "lingering questions about her effort to secure $10 million in defense money for an intelligence project sought by Mitchell Wade of MZM Inc." Media Matters also noted Hannity's failure to question Harris about her efforts on behalf of MZM. The Sun quoted "Florida lobbyist and Republican strategist" Mac Stipanovich, who described Harris's Hannity & Colmes appearance as "an attempt to avoid the hard questions in a press free-for-all."

During her interview with Hannity, Harris insisted that her campaign is "very forthcoming" and "engage[s]" the media, adding that she was "looking forward to a press conference Friday [March 17] with them [the media] back in the state." But as the Sun noted, Harris's campaign subsequently canceled that press conference -- "where the news media would have arrived brimming with questions."

The Orlando Sentinel's Jim Stratton noted in a March 21 article that Harris's Nightline appearance would be "the second time in two weeks Harris has scheduled a spot on a national news program, as she tries to salvage a campaign that, at times, has seemed ready to collapse." Stratton added, "She has generally been avoiding the Florida media, leaving campaign appearances without substantively addressing questions about the [Wade] contributions." A March 22 Tampa Tribune article described Harris's appearances with Hannity and Donvan as examples of the "nonconfrontational venues" she has recently chosen in an apparent attempt to dodge substantive questioning about her links to Wade.

As Donvan noted, Harris first garnered national attention as Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election. Harris presided over the recount of ballots and certified then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the winner in Florida, providing him with enough electoral votes to win the presidency. During the interview, Donvan said to Harris: "You took a lot of crap in public, just for being the Republican in that situation."

Elsewhere in the report, Donvan wondered if "the Republican Party treated her [Harris] honorably" when key Republican officials and strategists were hesitant to support her senatorial candidacy. Donvan also commented on Harris's "sunny disposition" and said that she is "as optimistic as she is fit. ... And energetic. And restless."

From the March 21 broadcast of ABC's Nightline:

DONVAN: So you are not angry at Karl Rove and the rest of the establishment for trying to find somebody else?

HARRIS: No. I'm not angry. I'm just anxious to move forward now.

DONVAN: Not that angry would necessarily show through this sunny disposition. Harris, a woman in middle-middle age, is as optimistic as she is fit. Her campaign put out this photo [of Harris riding a horse]. And energetic. And restless. Recently, she doffed her jacket in a high school political science class in Palmetto, Florida. And watch, she never lit in one spot for more than a few seconds -- back and forth, as she gave a rousing 20-minute talk on the virtues of a career in politics.

HARRIS: In government, you to be very responsive to your constituents.

DONVAN: And on the honorableness of her profession.

HARRIS: And getting involved. And maybe that's getting involved in politics, maybe that's --

DONVAN: But has the Republican Party treated her honorably? Well, here's what's at stake. The Senate seat in question is now held by a Democrat, Bill Nelson, whom the polls say Harris cannot beat because that whole 2000 scenario make her too controversial for middle-of-the-road voters, while Democrats, including [former Vice President] Al Gore, who's actually been in Florida campaigning for Nelson, are ready to go all-out to bring her down, in the name of payback. Plus, it turns out that one of her campaign contributors, a businessman named Mitchell Wade, who has pleaded guilty to bribing a California congressman, also made illegal contributions to her campaign, which she says she didn't know about. And though she gave the money back, it's what reporters in Florida keep asking about. Even this week it came up.

REPORTER: Are you concerned about the Michael [sic] Wade fallout? And being linked to something that involved bribery?

[...]

DONVAN: You took a lot of crap in public, just for being the Republican in that situation. And you would think that just for that -- having carried that burden, that when the time came, that you would like the party to stand behind you, the big guns.

Network/Outlet
ABC
Person
John Donvan
Show/Publication
Nightline
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