ORLANDO — For a U.S. Senate candidate campaigning against truth-stretching politicians, Republican Mike McCalister is facing questions about whether he padded his resume and misrepresented his military service.
The retired Army Reserves colonel has fashioned himself on the campaign trail as an "in the trenches" candidate who participated in "black ops" and even testified before Congress on national security.
But McCalister now admits he never spoke before Congress. He denies ever saying "I testified." However, he did say the phrase on at least two occasions at campaign events, according to witnesses and videos posted on YouTube.com that stretch back to his 2010 unsuccessful bid for governor.
"If there was any misrepresentation, I accept responsibility," McCalister, a 59-year-old from Plant City, said Saturday in his first public statements about the issue.
Also, McCalister's website used to describe him as "retired Special Operations Colonel." It was changed after retired military officers with a group called "Stolen Valor" began contacting the campaign and the press with complaints about the way McCalister represented his service.
After McCalister failed to respond to repeated questions from Stolen Valor, its main spokesman, Chuck Winn, forwarded these questions to reporters and made Facebook posts suggesting McCalister was puffing up his resume. McCalister refused to talk to a reporter about it Wednesday, claiming he had bad cell service.
McCalister's campaign then issued a lengthy press release detailing his service record, his awards and glowing reviews from senior officers that note his role working at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base after Sept. 11.
But the press release wasn't enough for Stolen Valor. Winn said that, when all of McCalister's speeches and written statements are put together, it gives a misleading impression of a combat-hardened officer. Winn, a Vietnam vet and retired Army colonel, said McCalister's service is commendable, but his record shows he hasn't served in a combat zone.
"There's no question he's a heavy-duty, high-speed intellectual who has done very important high-level staff work that were vital contributions to the success of deployed Special Operations units. That's not the issue," said Winn. "The issue is that he has been misleadingly vague, suggested he's in the Special Forces when he wasn't and was involved in hands-on 'black operations.' "
McCalister's campaign accused Winn and Stolen Valor of being a "front group" for fellow Republican Senate candidate Adam Hasner. Both Hasner and Winn deny the charges; McCalister has furnished no evidence to show there's a link between the two. A third candidate, George LeMieux, criticized Stolen Valor and supported McCalister.
Retired Naval officer Royce White, a Republican who writes under the pseudonym "Bloggy Bayou," first took note of McCalister's speech. In two blogs he posted in March, White said McCalister's speech could leave people with the impression that he fought in Afghanistan and Iraq when he didn't.
"What I got was a man bragging about what he had done in the military and what he knows that we don't," White wrote. "He did not ONCE say that he was a reservist and he left the opinion that he had been serving on the front lines [instead of] being a glorified paper pusher."
White then backed Hasner with a $100 donation.
McCalister's stump speech seems to be working. He's at the front of a crowded pack of Republicans, according to polls that nevertheless show half of voters haven't picked a candidate. With a strong speaking style, he can capture the attention of a room full of Republicans.
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In one typical speech available on YouTube, McCalister stressed his active duty when he addressed the Volusia 9.12 Project on Jan. 28. "I did it all: private E1 active duty; I was an active-duty colonel. In the guards, reserves, active duty. My best works are no doubt when I had that uniform on," he said.
In the speech, McCalister also noted he's a "war college graduate." Though some have thought the Army reservist attended the Army War College, he actually completed a distance-learning degree with the Air Force's war college. McCalister said he needed "top-secret clearance" to attend, but an Air College spokesman said that wasn't the case for the distance-learning program.
McCalister also mentions he attended the Command and General Staff College as part of his military record and took a leadership program at Harvard University. He seldom mentions the names of the civilian schools where he received undergraduate degrees and a Ph.D., Southeast Missouri State University and the Union Institute, a distance learning center, respectively.
McCalister teaches graduate courses at two other distance-learning colleges, Everglades University and the University of Phoenix. They paid him about $53,000 and $3,600, respectively, according to his most recent financial disclosures filed last year. McCalister earned another $53,000 working for Ventiv Pharma, a prescription-drug company, which he doesn't mention by name, either.
"I've worked in health care for many years," he said on the campaign trail. "I've worked with every teaching hospital in Florida and every medical school."
In his standard stump speech, McCalister also says he's a small businessman because he owns a palm-tree farm. His campaign, though, acknowledges he hasn't sold any trees from his farm, which is at his home and provides him a roughly $940 yearly agricultural property-tax break, according to the Hillsborough County property appraiser.
As pressure has mounted from vets, McCalister has emphasized his tree farm business more and toned down mention of "black ops" and his military service, judging by his strong performance at a Saturday candidate forum hosted by the Florida Family Policy Council.
McCalister, a political newcomer who has never held office, stood out for his direct style. It's a trademark of his campaign, which has the slogan "tired of fake politicians stretching the truth?" The campaign has also described him as a "hard-charging, conservative colonel."
When asked about the Stolen Valor allegations and his repeated statements that he "testified before Congress" on national security issues, McCalister wasn't so plain-spoken.
"I did not say 'testify before Congress,' " McCalister said, a direct contradiction of his recorded statements from two other events. His campaign website also suggested he gave "expert" testimony before lawmakers.
"We're releasing the military documents that identify what my job duties and my performances were," he said. "So I'm going to leave it at that."