Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum upped the financial and political stakes of his campaign against Internet sex crime, urging Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink on Thursday to greenlight another $975,000 in television spots under a no-bid contract with his former campaign consultant.
McCollum has already dropped about $1.4 million in state funds on public service ads on online predators, and he asked for Sink's "continued support." She said she backs the message, not the method.
"I was disappointed to learn that you intend to continue your no-bid contract to Chris Mottola Consulting, instead of going through a competitive bidding process," Sink wrote in response. "Also it is important to note that these funds are public funds — they belong to Florida's taxpayers."
Sink asked for more documentation on the contract, but her office has said she can't stop payment if McCollum complies with state law.
He called her actions "hypocritical'' and accused her of standing in the way of public safety.
"This essential program's only purpose is to protect Florida's children," McCollum wrote back. "CyberSafety is not a political issue — our children's safety hangs in the balance."
The escalating dispute reflects the growing speculation that Gov. Charlie Crist will run for the Senate in 2010, leaving McCollum and Sink to wrestle for his job. The public spat also signals the issues that likely will define their next campaigns — the Republican attorney general staking his reputation on fighting cybercrime and the Democratic CFO positioning herself as the state's fiscal watchdog.
On Thursday, McCollum went on a public relations tear. He released statistics suggesting that the ads are driving more people to his cyber safety Web site — www.safeflorida.net — and released statements from law enforcement and education officials praising his initiative.
"Protecting children is one of the highest callings of the attorney general, so I can understand him feeling principled about that," said Tallahassee attorney George LeMieux, who served as deputy attorney general under Crist.
The ad, which has aired in South and North Florida, is now slated to run for five weeks in Tampa, Orlando, Sarasota and Fort Myers. That keeps McCollum in the public eye while he decides whether to seek re-election or a higher office.
McCollum is likely to face Republican rivals in an open governor's race — possibly former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota.
"Why does he want to spend the next 16 months fighting Alex Sink when he's likely going to have a couple of Republican opponents and she may have a clear shot at governor?" asked Jamie Miller, a strategist who worked on McCollum's 2006 campaign. "I think this issue has become a crusade for him, that's the line he's drawn, and he wants his legacy to be making children safer."
McCollum's YouTube-ready ad marks an evolution from the public service announcements clumsily pieced together by government bureaucrats who relied on the goodwill of television stations for air time.
In recent years, state agencies that wanted to make sure their ads appeared could take advantage of steep markdowns available through Florida's broadcasting and cable associations — though there's no guarantee of time slots during popular shows. That's what Sink, Gov. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson did when they ran issue-oriented ads in the past year.
Crist and Sink don't appear in their ads promoting adoption and hurricane inspections.
Bronson appears briefly in two of the seven spots produced by his office in the past year, warning about the risks of wildfires.
"The rest of our spots were to benefit the agriculture industry, and his presence isn't necessary," said spokesman Terry McElroy.
One of the state's best-known campaigns used B-list celebrities like Chuck Norris to promote Gov. Jeb Bush's "10-20-life'' crackdown on violent crime. It also aired at the discounted rate.
But Mottola, a nationally known consultant who helped get Republican Connie Mack elected to the Senate in 1988, put the attorney general in nearly every frame of the cybercrime spot and cherry-picked time spots during television shows from NBC's Today to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Mottola gets a 5 percent discount on the ads and receives a 10 percent commission, plus production costs. He stands to make about $300,000 on the deal.
"This is very unusual and possibly historic," said longtime media consultant Ron Sachs, who has cut ads for Crist and Bush. "It's a breathtaking amount of money, and he owes to the taxpayers to try to leverage the dollars spent against the backdrop of a tight budget. Frankly, you have plenty of firms in Florida that would have loved to compete for the chance to produce and place this spot."
Mottola, whose Web site depicts a shark bearing its teeth, did not respond to phone calls or e-mails Wednesday and Thursday.
McCollum spokeswoman Sandi Copes said, "The options through the associations —which we did consider — would not have maximized our message to our target demographic: parents."
The money for the ads comes from $2.5 million in penalties paid by companies accused of on-line consumer fraud. The Legislature approved McCollum's request to spend the money on raising public awareness about pedophiles who troll the Internet.
McCollum circumvented competitive bidding through a loophole in state law for "artistic services." Hitting at the same time he's mulling his next campaign, Democrats say he's stretching the law and using state funds to boost his popularity.
"It is disappointing that McCollum would ask for another million tax dollars to continue his self-promoting no-bid contract for his partisan consultant," said Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.