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Rep. Cliff Stearns accused of trying to bribe rival

It looks like Florida now has three members of Congress under investigation by federal authorities. The latest strange and unseemly tale involves U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, accused of trying to bribe a political rival to keep him from running against him in a newly drawn North Florida district.

Clay County Clerk of the Court James Jett last week told the Florida Times-Union that Stearns used middlemen, including former Florida Education Commissioner and state Sen. Jim Horne, to offer him prospective jobs and money in exchange for staying out of the race. Jett said the FBI wiretapped his phones to record conversations about the enticements to stay out of the race.

"Mr. Jett's claim is totally unfounded," said Paul Flusche, a spokesman for Stearns. "No one is authorized to make any claims or concessions on behalf of Representative Stearns. He has not communicated with Mr. Jett at any time to get out of the race. This is a pure and simple political maneuver by Mr. Jett to illegally entrap former friends for vindictive reasons. … Mr. Jett's allegations arose from his own solicitations and strategies for compensation to remove himself as a candidate once he found out that Representative Stearns would be running in the newly formed district."

Jett is challenging Stearns in the 3rd Congressional District, and alleges that Stearns' allies suggested he could be hired by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the U.S. Marshals Service, or have campaign expenses paid off if he dropped out.

The FBI has not confirmed an investigation, and Horne also dismissed the allegations.

"I have followed the spirit and letter of the law," Horne said in an email. "My discussions with Mr. Jett were appropriate based on my long history as a loyal Republican. He has chosen to take this to the media and make false allegations about the nature of the conversations."

Other members of the Florida delegation with investigations hanging over them are Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, who is under Justice Department investigation for potential campaign finance violations, and David Rivera, R-Miami, who is under federal investigation for his role in an undisclosed $500,000 payment by a dog track.

'Political Connections'

Check out the special hour-long legislative wrapup edition of Political Connections today on Bay News 9 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. Guests include soon-to-be Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and state Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

The first accomplishment cited by Brandes? "Moving the ball forward" on Florida's higher education system. This in a year lawmakers slashed $300 million from the higher ed budget.

Weatherford, one of the brightest bulbs in Tallahassee at age 32, said he plans to look "very seriously" at a sales tax on Internet purchases next year.

"We've got to bring our tax code up to the 21st century. We all know people make purchases online, and we know that a lot of people are skirting the law because of that,'' Weatherford said.

"I'm not interested in doing that to grow government. I'm not interested in doing that to create more revenue streams for the state. If we're able to get more revenue from something like online sales tax, what we should do is pay off other taxes that are hurting businesses and making it harder to create jobs in our state."

Verbatim

You never know where the debate will sometimes lead in the Florida Legislature. Take this exchange in the Florida House last week over a proposed amendment to the Florida Evidence Code concerning hearsay evidence:

State Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee: "I think Jay-Z said it best and I'm going to quote for you. 'I know my rights and you're going to need a warrant for that.' And he even went further, 'Aren't you sharp as a tack, are you a lawyer or something?' Members, when you look at it, support this. If you support Jay-Z, support this amendment. Thank you."

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park: "I must respectfully disagree with a correction, Representative Williams. In the song, it was the officer who said, 'Aren't you sharp as a tack?' or something. 'You should try for lawyer or something,' so I got you on that. It's an unspoken rule, if you're going to invoke Jay-Z, you must get the lyrics correct. I'm not sure Jay-Z would support this amendment."

Jeb's progeny

As much of the political world ponders whether Jeb Bush will run for president in 2016 (he'll be just 63), one consideration could be the ambitions of his sons, George P. Bush, 35, of Texas and Jeb Bush Jr., 28, of Miami. George P. sat down recently with the Texas Tribune to talk about his political action committee helping Latino Republicans. Like his father, though, his views on immigration could pose a problem with today's GOP base, which shows little interest in doing anything but deporting the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in America.

He called himself a "George W. Bush" Republican on immigration, which plays better in Texas than elsewhere.

"That is essentially securing the border, placing an importance on that," he said.

"In terms of folks already here? Figure out a way where they can be taken out of the shadows and contribute to society and provide an opportunity to contribute and pay their fair share."

Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald contributed to this week's Buzz.

Winner

of the week

Will Weatherford. It has been years since an incoming House speaker has drawn the kind of bipartisan accolades and optimism that Weatherford has. Underscoring his reputation for savvy and fairness, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday validated the House redistricting plan he oversaw. Unlike the Senate, he followed the spirit of redistricting reform overwhelmingly passed by voters.

Loser

of the week

Don Gaetz. It has been years since the Florida Senate has looked so weak and dysfunctional. Gaetz, the incoming president, deserves much of the blame for sowing mistrust and negativity. His redistricting plan failed to pass the state Supreme Court, and Gaetz showed how the man who thinks he's the smartest in the room also can look like the most inept.

Rep. Cliff Stearns accused of trying to bribe rival 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 9:31pm]

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