After months of denying he knew about the mysterious calls made by the Chiles campaign to senior citizens, Scott Falmlen, executive director of the state Democratic Party, now admits he knew quite a lot.
Falmlen's belated admission is the latest twist in a yearlong epic that accelerated last week when Gov. Chiles admitted that his campaign made thousands of last-minute calls slamming Republican Jeb Bush, while using the names of other organizations.
Chiles defeated Bush by the narrowest margin ever recorded in a Florida governor's race. Chiles says he was disappointed when he learned that his own campaign made the calls but insists he knew nothing of them at the time and only learned the details last week. He places the blame on Jim Krog, a senior campaign aide who also served as his first chief of staff.
The campaign now admits making more than 70,000 calls to voters who were told that the calls were coming from the Florida Association for Senior Citizens and Citizens for Tax Fairness. The senior citizens organization exists but did not authorize the calls; the tax group does not exist.
Chiles, Krog and others repeatedly denied knowledge of the calls when questioned by reporters earlier this year as a Senate committee began investigating the calls.
Now Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Executive Business, Ethics and Elections Committee, says Chiles, Krog, Falmlen and others are likely to be called as witnesses.
"It's evolving before our eyes with something new every day," Crist said Friday. "I'm more inclined than ever to have hearings in December."
One of many questions remaining is how many calls were made. On Thursday, responding to a subpoena issued by the Senate, Chiles said 70,810 "anti-Bush/Feeney" calls were made using the names of the two organizations. The campaign paid the Washington company that made the calls more than $570,000 during the campaign and obtained the phone numbers of 684,000 senior citizens from the Democratic Party a month before the 1994 election.
In the seven counties targeted by the telephone calls, Chiles received 63,100 more votes than Bush did, slightly less than the 63,940 vote margin of victory statewide.
"I don't believe any of this stuff anymore," said Cory Tilley, spokesman for the Florida Republican Party. "We may never know whether there were 70,000 or 600,000 phone calls made."
Falmlen says the only mistake the campaign made was in using the name of the seniors group. They meant to use only fictitious names.
"I knew it as the calls were being made," Falmlen said Friday. "I saw the script. I knew they were using what we believed to be fictitious names."
Falmlen again defended the practice, saying, "It's common in every political campaign to add legitimacy to your message to make it sell."
Tilley disagreed, saying he has never heard of a campaign using phony names to call voters.
"But even if that is true, it doesn't make it acceptable," Tilley added. "And if it's okay, why have they been lying about it? He's saying it's okay to lie and scare senior citizens."
Falmlen defended the calls, saying they were part of the overall message that Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay were trying to communicate to voters.
"It's all much ado about nothing," Falmlen insisted. "None of us have taken this really seriously until the last few weeks. That may be an error, but we saw it as Charlie Crist trying to gain a little political mileage. Our message was accurate; if it scared senior citizens, they had a right to be scared. With what is going on in Washington now, I could make an argument that the calls were prophetic."
Asked why he earlier denied knowledge of the calls, Falmlen said he thought he had been careful to deny that the party made the calls and to avoid directly answering other questions.
Falmlen was quizzed by a Times reporter on several occasions because he was deeply involved in the governor's re-election campaign and previously worked as vice president and general manager of the Washington company that was hired to make the calls for the Chiles campaign. He has experience in preparing scripts for campaign calls and worked on Chiles staff before being hired by the party to work in the 1994 campaign.
"I told you I didn't know the calls were being made, but I don't think I ever directly answered your questions," Falmlen said. "That was a mistake."
Falmlen again insisted that Chiles and MacKay did not know about the calls until Krog advised them a week ago.
"That's not the kind of decision you give to a candidate to make," Falmlen said. "They knew we were making calls, but did we put every script under their nose? No."
Falmlen said he wishes that the uproar surrounding the calls "would go away."
"I'd be more than happy to buy you a ticket to Aruba," Falmlen joked.
_ Staff writer Kati Schardl contributed to this report.
Who knew what and when they knew it
Nov. 8, 1994: Jo Miglino, press secretary for Gov. Lawton Chiles denies any involvement in the telephone calls after hundreds of voters complain to newspaper and party headquarters about calls from Association for Senior Citizens and Citizens for Tax Fairness.
Feb. 7: Sen. Charlie Crist, chairman of Senate Executive Business, Ethics and Elections Committee plays tape he received from Mary Baker, a retired St. Petersburg nurse whose answering machine picked it up on Election Day.
April 4: Crist calls for formal inquiry into mysterious calls by State Division of Elections.
July 27: State Division of Elections sends questions to Chiles campaign seeking information on calls made by the campaign.
Aug. 24: Robert M. Brochin, attorney for the Chiles campaign, denies giving or receiving money from senior citizens or taxpayer group.
Sept. 7: Senate committee writes Chiles campaign and Florida Democratic Party asking what they knew about calls.
Sept. 9: Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Falmlen denies knowing who made the telephone calls.
Oct. 17: From Scott Falmlen: "Who the calls went to and why and when, I don't know."
Oct. 18: Crist writes second letter to Chiles and the Democratic Party asking about the calls.
Oct. 19: From Lawton Chiles: "I don't know anything about that. It is not something I knew about at the time. I only wish Charlie (Crist) was as interested in other problems facing the state."
Oct. 20: From Ron Sachs, Chiles' communications director: "Chiles and MacKay were not aware such calls were made by the campaign. If that happened it's probably wrong."
Nov. 3: Senate issues subpoena for Chiles and Democratic Party campaign records. . . . Attorney for Chiles admits in a letter to Senate the mystery calls were made by the campaign but doesn't know how many calls or who wrote the script. . . . From Scott Falmlen: "I knew there were calls being made and knew senior citizens were a target group. I did not know what the final script was." . . . Jim Krog accepts blame and estimates that between 25,000 and 50,000 calls were made.
Nov. 6: Chiles admits it was wrong, but refuses to apologize and said he didn't know about the calls until advised by senior campaign adviser Jim Krog on Nov. 2.
Nov. 7: Chiles says: "It was dumb to do and I'm sorry it happened."
Nov 8: Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay admits knowing that calls were made to senior citizens, but denies knowing that the campaign misrepresented who was making calls.
Nov. 9 Chiles campaign says 70,810 "anti Bush/Feeney" calls were made.
Nov. 10: Scott Falmlen: "I knew it as the calls were being made. I saw the script. I knew they were using what was believed to be fictitious names."