Jeb Bush’s Recount Role Examined
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.
An additional 25 calls were made to the Washington law firm then known as Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal. Law firm partner Michael Carvin wrote briefs for the George W. Bush campaign during the recount and argued his case before the Florida Supreme Court. Several of the firm’s associates flew to Tallahassee to help.
David Thompson, a lawyer whose extension was dialed 13 times, declined to detail the discussions. “I’m a little bit loath to comment on what I was doing other than to say I am a Republican and I certainly supported the governor” of Texas, he said.
Thompson added that he recalled speaking with Jeb Bush’s legal staff about a lawsuit that challenged a state law that bans convicted felons from voting. James K. Green, a plaintiff’s lawyer in the case, said there wasn’t much going on in the case “except for legal housekeeping matters” in November and early December. A brief was due in January.
Bush’s legal staff also phoned the Washington offices of the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher on Dec. 5, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the recount case back to Florida. Theodore B. Olson and a team of lawyers from that firm worked on the case for the Bush campaign.
Yet another call went to Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker’s cell phone. Tucker said she kept notes during those hectic days but couldn’t find any reference to the call from Jeb Bush’s office.
“I have looked through stuff, and I don’t remember what that phone call was, as many times as my phone rang at that point in time,” she said.
Jeb Bush communications director Baur said she might have called Tucker. “We were getting a lot of phone calls here that we might have been referring to the campaign.” Baur said the staff was extra careful not to mix politics with state business, especially once Bush recused himself.
Bush’s recusal was noteworthy, in part, because other state officials were highly visible in both the campaign and the recount. Democrats sharply criticized Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush partisan whose office includes the Division of Elections, while Republicans lambasted Bob Butterworth, the state attorney general and a Gore activist.
Jeb Bush was in a precarious political position, no matter what he did. He had been criticized for not doing enough for his brother before the election or for doing it wrong.
On Nov. 2, for example, a Tallahassee judge threw out a lawsuit from Democrats that alleged Jeb Bush had misused the state seal when the Florida GOP sent out a letter to Republican voters from the governor, urging them to vote absentee from “the comfort of your home.” Florida law at the time required voters to have a legitimate reason for not voting at the polls.
Then, when the election came down to his own state, Jeb Bush publicly opted out of an official role.
Although Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial staff was not bound by his recusal, anyone who worked the recount took unpaid leave “as an abundance of caution,” Baur declared in November. She said it would not be “appropriate to answer and respond to political questions” while working for the governor.
Among the Jeb Bush aides who joined the ballot recount was Frank Jimenez, then his chief lawyer and now his deputy chief of staff.
Bush is known as a hands-on, detail-oriented executive. Yet when Jimenez spent Thanksgiving dinner with the governor and his family at the governor’s mansion, Jeb Bush said they talked about his dog Marvin and cat Sugar, as well as the late Mother Teresa. Jimenez referred calls to Baur, who said “politics never reared its ugly head” at the dinner.
“We ate turkey with a chipolte [sic] laced stuffing that was awesome,” Bush said. “We invited Frank since he could not go back to Miami to spend Thanksgiving to be with his family.”
The Florida governor also had close ties to many of the Republicans who played key roles on his brother’s behalf.
As governor, Jeb Bush had appointed four judges who served on canvassing boards in the state. His former campaign advisor, J.M. “Mac” Stipanovitch, acted as consultant to Secretary of State Harris during the recount. Barry Richard, who represented him in the absentee ballot lawsuit, also represented the presidential campaign.
In December, reporters cornered Jeb Bush in Tallahassee and asked if he was helping his brother. “I’m interested in this,” he said at the time. “I’m not ignoring the fact that we have a historical occurrence in our midst here, but what I do most of the time that I’m awake and focused is serve as governor.”
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What Were Calls About?
Times staff writer Lisa Getter sent Florida Gov. Jeb Bush an e-mail message asking about the 95 phone calls that were made from his office during the recount, including 10 from the line he used. The message also asked whether the governor discussed the campaign with his legal counsel Frank Jimenez during Thanksgiving dinner. Jiminez was working on the recount at the time.
Lisa, I have no clue what these calls were about. They most likely were return phone calls. 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 of Austin folks that made their way here. They could have been for many reasons. I cannot remember.
As it relates to Frank Jimenez and Thanksgiving, I can remember vividly. Columba and I invited him to dinner with the Towey family (Jim, Mary, Jaime, Joey, Max, John) and we talked about Marvin the Dog and Sugar the Cat who the Towey kids were fascinated with. We also talked about Mother Teresa who Jim worked with and he explained why she will become a Saint. We ate turkey with a chipolte laced stuffing that was awesome.
We invited Frank since he could not go back to Miami to spend Thanksgiving to be with his family.
I hope this helps you out.
*This is a verbatim transcript of Bush’s e-mail. *
Times staff writer Katie Howe and researcher Sunny Kaplan contributed to this story.