Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo, St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 24, 2009
In a highly embarrassing mea culpa, Florida’s powerful trial lawyer lobby admitted Wednesday that it was behind an ugly race-baiting flier in a recent North Florida Senate election.
“Morally and politically, it was indefensible,” said Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, the trial bar group, who said its leaders had no knowledge of it. “I accept full responsibility for not having done everything to stop that piece from going out.”
The flier juxtaposed images of the Black Panthers, President Barack Obama, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and black marchers holding a large ACORN banner. The caption read: “Is this the change YOU want to believe in? Violence and intimidation at the voting booth.”
The admission sheds new light on the growing practice in Florida of electioneering groups known as 527s that transfer large sums of money among each other to buy ads to influence voters while concealing their affiliations.
The controversial flier also may have damaged the trial bar’s reputation with African-American legislators. Said Rep. Joe Gibbons, a former president of the legislative black caucus: “An apology won’t do.”
“Armed thugs may try and scare you away from the voting booth,” read the text of the mailer, a message still volatile in Jacksonville since the 2000 presidential recount. The city was the epicenter of the recent Senate election in which Republican John Thrasher, a former House speaker, overcame a barrage of trial-lawyer attacks to defeat three rivals.
The mailer included a tear-off absentee ballot request form and was the trial bar’s way of building a pool of persuadable absentee voters through a phony political group. The so-called Conservative Voters’ Coalition was a 527 political organization acting as a front for the trial bar.
On Aug. 21, the mailer’s existence was noted on a Jacksonville political blog, triggering an uproar. Tom Edwards, the lawyer whose Conservative Citizens for Justice group paid for it, resigned, calling the piece “detestable,” “appalling” and “inappropriate.”
Trial bar executive director Carruthers said the group’s internal process of vetting all political advertising was not followed, including a review by its election-law adviser, attorney Ron Meyer.
Rep. Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said the trial bar’s actions are especially damaging, coming at a time when some feel that criticism of Obama’s presidency has racial overtones.
“That’s just bad faith,” Gibbons said. “You would like to think nobody would use race, particularly at a time when you have a black president, and you have these hard people out there with all these hard feelings built up. It’s an insult to me . . . to think that people just trying to win an office would go to those kinds of depths to win is shocking.”
What was especially embarrassing about the mailer is that trial lawyers overwhelmingly backed Obama’s election, and Carruthers personally gave $2,300 to Obama’s effort.