Powerful lawyers accustomed to throwing their weight around the courtroom have pounced on recent attack ads accusing Dan Gelber, Democratic candidate for Florida attorney general, of being "toxic to Jewish education."
The group of 100 lawyers, including former federal prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office, issued a statement saying the mailers aimed at South Florida Jewish voters were funded by an "anonymous group'' that supports Gelber's Republican opponent, Pamela Bondi, a Tampa-based state prosecutor.
The same group took out advertising in the Jewish Press of Pinellas County that echoed the anti-Gelber theme.
The flyers, which attacked Gelber's "record against scholarships to help our needy children attend Jewish private schools," contained "blatant falsehoods," his legal supporters said.
Gelber's campaign director, Christian Ulvert, called the mailers by the Committee for Florida's Education Inc. "disgusting." Gelber is a Jewish state senator from Miami Beach and a former federal prosecutor in Miami.
"There is no doubt in anybody's minds these are mailers closely aligned with Pam Bondi and her campaign," Ulvert said.
Not true, said a spokeswoman for Bondi's campaign. "Neither I nor the Bondi campaign had anything to do with these flyers," Kim Kirtley said.
Still, there appear to be circumstantial connections: Kirtley's husband, John F. Kirtley, is vice chairman of a national political group, American Federation for Children, which gave $255,000 to the Committee for Florida's Education, the recently formed state political organization that paid for the ads targeting Gelber.
Kirtley's husband, a Tampa-based Republican fundraiser, said American Federation for Children promotes educational choices, such as voucher programs, that entail using public tax dollars to send low-income children to private and religious schools. He said there was "no collusion'' between the Washington, D.C., organization and the Bondi campaign on the Gelber ads.
He stressed that his organization supports both Republican and Democratic candidates who back school-choice initiatives.
A spokesman for the Committee for Florida's Education said it is a coalition of 40 Jewish leaders whose sole mission is to promote educational choice in Florida, including preserving the state's corporate tax credits for scholarships to help send children to Jewish schools.
Gelber, backed by public school teachers' unions, opposes such scholarships and the use of taxpayer dollars for private education. Bondi does not.
Spokesman Elnatan Rudolph said the group's leaders — including Miami lawyer and Rabbi Moshe Lehrfield — first contacted the American Federation for Children because of its expertise. Then the Jewish leaders donated $255,000 to the Washington organization. In turn, the Washington group gave back the money to the Committee For Florida's Education this fall, when it was formally set up, state records show.
Rudolph said the state's tax-credit scholarships have sent 500 children to Jewish schools. All together, the scholarship program funded K-12 education for nearly 29,000 students at 1,033 private schools in Florida last year.
He said the mailers targeting Gelber are not a "smear campaign."
"This is an educational campaign," he said. "He has repeatedly voted against school choice."
The Committee for Florida's Education has targeted not only Gelber, but also Alex Sink, Democratic candidate for governor, and Loranne Ausley, Democratic candidate for chief financial officer.
Gelber's legal allies said in their statement that the mailers distorted his career of public service.
"The most inflammatory claims deal with Sen. Gelber's call for investigations of how voucher money was being spent," said the statement, written by former federal prosecutor Bruce Udolf.
"The truth? Sen. Gelber expressed deep concern that one school receiving voucher money, the Islamic Academy of Florida, sent $350,000 overseas to fund terrorist activity."
The statement was signed by 100 South Floridian lawyers and others of the Jewish faith, including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, and former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler.