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Mortham's name graces state building

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Named for Florida's 14th secretary of state, the R.A. Gray Building is an imposing structure that showcases the state's library, archives and history museums.

Now, it showcases current Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, as well. After she took office in 1995, Mortham's name was added to the building's prominent entrance sign.

The cost to taxpayers: At least $1,500.

Her staff _ Assistant Secretary of State Rich Heffley and Division of Historical Resources Director George W. Percy _ take credit for putting Mortham's name on the sign.

"I was not aware of it but I don't see a problem with it," Mortham said Wednesday.

The sign is just one example of how state resources are being used to promote Mortham.

Records and interviews show that the secretary of state's office has routinely used public employees to work on projects promoting Mortham. She is now a candidate for lieutenant governor on Republican Jeb Bush's ticket.

Workers in the Division of Historical Resources framed posters with Mortham's name on them so she could present them to libraries and others as gifts. They designed T-shirts bearing her name. And they oversaw the addition of her name to the R.A. Gray Building sign.

William Celander, the curator of exhibits for state historical museums, quit his job in May after 15 years with the Department of State, partly due to his discomfort with the promotions.

"You can swallow it only so long," said Celander, who also worked under Secretaries of State George Firestone and Jim Smith. While those men also used their names or pictures on state materials, Mortham intensified the practice, using state employees far more for the work and creating a political atmosphere in a state program that should be devoid of politics, Celander said.

Neither Smith nor Firestone had their names put on the structure named for Robert Andrew Gray, who was secretary of state for 31 years before receiving the honor.

"After a while, it's just wearing," Celander said of the emphasis on promoting Mortham. "It's there all the time, and I don't like that it's there." He noted that politics weren't the entire reason he left _ he also felt he needed a change after 15 years, and now does freelance illustration and design work from home.

Celander said he never expressed his concerns about politics when he resigned, wanting to leave on a positive note.

Wednesday, Mortham and Percy were surprised by his comments. Mortham said she has an open door and Celander should have come to her with his complaints.

Mortham and her staff have said they put Mortham's name and picture on materials to promote the Department of State, and it's impossible not to promote Mortham at the same time.

Yet Mortham's public relations machine has become the butt of jokes in the capital. Now, state auditors and prosecutors are reviewing expenditures by a nonprofit group associated with Mortham's office. Mortham's staff worked with the group to buy items, some with Mortham's name on them, that she could distribute in Florida and abroad.

Percy, a Department of State employee since 1974, said politics are part of life in Tallahassee. But they don't interfere with the historic preservation, archaeology and other programs under his division. In fact, grants to such programs have increased during Mortham's tenure, and the division has accomplished successful programs including the celebration of Florida's Sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, in 1995.

"I really don't think it is true that her administration has been more political," Percy said.

However, Percy also acknowledged Wednesday that:

He understood it to be a departmental policy that Mortham's name and picture be used on materials. When his employees designed one poster without her name, he reminded them to add it. Among the posters workers framed as gifts: "Celebrate Florida" posters for the Sesquicentennial; "Faces of Florida's Heritage" poster; "Florida's First People" poster. And in the state history museum gift shop, visitors can buy a "Mission San Luis" poster with Mortham's name, and a Florida "Artist of the Year" poster with her name.

Employees in his division, particularly those who put on museum exhibits, were called upon to frame the posters for Mortham to give to schools, libraries, visitors to her office and other people.

It's hard to calculate the total cost to taxpayers for the work. Four museum artisans in the section who usually do the framing earn between $10 and $12 an hour. Depending on the type of framing, one poster can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes to frame. Celander said at least 100 posters were framed by the employees before he left in May. Percy didn't know how many were done, but said in some instances, his employees had to walk up to the Capitol building to get the posters signed by Mortham before they could finish the framing.

While Mortham's staff at the Capitol says putting her picture on materials doesn't cost more money, it isn't always the case. When Mortham took office, there were about 100,000 Florida Black Heritage Trail booklets that included a picture of her predecessor in office, Jim Smith. Percy said the state spent about $5,000 to tear off the cover bearing Smith's picture and design a new cover with Mortham's. A private group picked up the rest of the $25,000 tab.

The money for some of the framing materials came from Florida History Associates. The purchases date back to 1995, when Mortham first took office. For example, $771.47 was spent in January 1995 for framing materials for 50 Sesquicentennial posters for Mortham to give as gifts. Another $473.71 was spent in February 1995 for another 20 Sesquicentennial posters for Mortham, according to Florida History Associates records.

The records also show the group's money was spent for a frame for a cartoon for Mortham's office, and for pictures to put in the office of her former communications director, Stan Smith.

Mortham's staff said Smith reimbursed Florida History Associates for the $247.27 spent on frames for his office. But it's not likely he reimbursed state employees for the time spent on framing the materials, said Marc Dunbar, Mortham's spokeswoman.

Mortham and Percy said that they considered framing the posters to be the jobs of the state employees involved.

"We probably ask our employees to work as hard or harder than any other employees in this state. For that I'm not ashamed," Mortham said.

Framing posters has "nothing to do with politics whatsoever," Mortham said. It has to do with the function of the secretary of state's office. "Our job is to get the word out about the history and heritage of this state."