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McCollum takes heat over his ad campaign

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is starring in a long-running television ad promoting awareness about Internet predators that Democrats are calling a thinly disguised campaign commercial using state funds.

The same Philadelphia firm that worked on McCollum's 2006 campaign got two no-bid contracts totaling $1.4 million to produce the ad and buy television time statewide.

"Our cybercrime unit is doing everything possible to catch these predators, but we need the help of parents and grandparents — your help," McCollum says in the ad, before directing viewers to his Web site on Internet crime at www.safeflorida.net.

It's not unusual for politicians to appear in public service announcements, but McCollum's use of his longtime campaign ad man, Chris Mottola, raised hackles among some Democrats.

"He's using money that should be promoting public safety to promote himself," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.

Asked to respond, McCollum, a Republican, said, "I think they're thinking too much about politics and not enough about kids and families."

Fighting online sex crimes has long been a top priority for the attorney general, whose job is to serve as the public's lawyer.

"This is an issue very near and dear to his heart," said McCollum's spokeswoman, Sandi Copes. "Not in a way, shape or form is he trying to advance his political career."

McCollum said in January that he plans to seek re-election and tentatively ruled out a bid for the U.S. Senate. If Gov. Charlie Crist decides to seek the Senate seat, McCollum is expected to consider running for governor in 2010.

McCollum's chief of staff, Joe Jacquot, said the office could hire McCollum's former campaign media consultant, Chris Mottola, without competitive bids under an "artistic services" exemption for state contracts.

State Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Palm Beach County Democrat and potential candidate for attorney general, said McCollum is relying on a rarely used loophole meant to apply to works of art.

The 30-second ad features McCollum speaking directly to the camera, with children walking school hallways and using a laptop in the background.

Jacquot said Mottola obtained a 5 percent discount from TV stations. Mattola's cut amounted to 10 percent of the cost of the television time, plus about $38,000 for production. That means Mottola earned about $136,000 on the deal — more than the $87,511 he was paid by McCollum during the 2006 campaign.

The ad is scheduled to air for two weeks starting today from Miami to West Palm Beach in English and Spanish. It ran in South Florida for part of January and all of February, and for six weeks over the summer in Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Panama City and Gainesville.

Kyra Jennings, a spokeswoman for Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, said, "The state is in the midst of a budget crisis right now, and the CFO is concerned that spending state funds on television ads at this time may not be the most appropriate use."

The money comes not from tax dollars, but from settlements with companies accused of misleading consumers about the costs of ring tones and other cell phone services. The ad is marked as paid for by the Department of Legal Affairs.

In the ad, McCollum warns, "Seventy-seven million children go online every day. One out of seven will be solicited for sex."

That sounds like 11 million kids are getting propositioned every day. But McCollum is melding numbers from two different sources: a U.S. Department of Justice estimate of children online nationwide, along with a survey of 1,500 children backed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that found one in seven had been asked for sex over the past year.

"You have a limited number of words that you can use in a 30-second ad," Jacquot explained. "I don't think he's trying to overblow the problem, but he is trying to give a wakeup call."

A recent report by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University said bullying by peers is the most common threat to minors online.

In a written response to the study, McCollum said it was based on outdated research and had a lack of input from law enforcement.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

McCollum takes heat over his ad campaign 03/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 11:17pm]
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