1. Florida Politics

From the archives: Lawton Chiles' camp admits to 'mystery' calls against Jeb Bush campaign

Before a Tampa debate in November 1994, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush shake hands. (Times Photo (1994)   |   Jim Stem)
Before a Tampa debate in November 1994, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush shake hands. (Times Photo (1994) | Jim Stem)
Published Jun. 8, 2015

Editor's Note: Originally published Nov. 4, 1995.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Lawton Chiles' campaign made the mystery calls that frightened thousands of senior citizens in the days before the 1994 election.

After a year of denials, the admission came Friday evening in a letter written by a campaign attorney who insists Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay did not know the campaign made the calls.

Earlier Friday, a Senate committee investigating the calls issued subpoenas for all records held by the Chiles campaign and the state Democratic Party to find out who made the calls.

The calls, possibly as many as 684,000, went to senior citizens in Pinellas, Pasco, Sarasota, Polk, Orange, Manatee and Palm Beach counties. Callers advised seniors that Republican Jeb Bush was no friend of elderly Floridians because he opposed Medicare and wanted to abolish Social Security.

The calls were made by people who identified themselves as being with the Florida Association of Senior Citizens — a Fort Lauderdale organization run by a Republican who did not support Chiles — and Citizens for Tax Fairness, which doesn't exist. Some of the calls labeled Bush a tax cheat and said he profited at taxpayer expense from business deals involving failed savings and loans.

Until Friday, Chiles, his campaign aides and Democratic party officials denied knowledge of the calls.

The admission was in a letter addressed to Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, after Crist announced the subpoenas.

"Those portions of the telephone scripts were apparently approved in the final days of the campaign," wrote Miami lawyer Robert M. Brochin, who was the campaign's attorney. "It is difficult to reconstruct the origin of this inappropriate idea, however, the campaign and its senior adviser Jim Krog approved it and accepts responsibility."

Brochin defended the primary message in the calls, arguing that Bush's running mate, Tom Feeney, wanted to abolish Social Security and had called Medicare a welfare program that should be cut.

Bush, reached at home in Miami, said the accusations were ridiculous.

"If the accusations were true, why didn't his campaign have the courage to say they were making the calls?" Bush asked. "Clearly the fact they used fictitious names is pretty good proof that the charges were not true."

Bush refused to blame the calls for the outcome of the election. It was decided by about 63,000 votes — the closest margin of victory in a race for governor in Florida.

Cory Tilley, spokesman for the state Republican Party and former press secretary for the Bush campaign, denounced Chiles.

"This makes Gov. Chiles not the icon some people believe he is, but a boldfaced liar," Tilley said. "This is the kind of thing that gives citizens of this state a reason to distrust politicians. They are admitting that Gov. Chiles' campaign had to lie and cheat to get re-elected."

Tilley said he believes Chiles and MacKay, who plans to run for governor in 1998, owe the state's senior citizens an apology.

"These people were scared to death last year," Tilley said. "And all those calls were made with our tax dollars that he got from public financing. He spent the money to scare senior citizens and now they claim they aren't scaring senior citizens on Medicare issues."

Although the Chiles campaign has admitted making the calls, no one is apologizing. Chiles was in Gainesville attending homecoming festivities at the University of Florida. Communications director Ron Sachs said the governor "will have his own reaction," but declined to say what that might be.

Almost everyone in the Chiles camp was attacking Crist for pressing the issue. Sachs accused Crist of subpoenaing the records as part of "a dramatic way to make a headline this week."

Scott Falmlen, executive director of the state Democratic Party and a former Chiles staffer, defended the calls as "within the realm of political license."

"I just think this is much ado about nothing," said Falmlen, calling Crist's inquiry "nothing but a Charlie Crist publicity stunt."

Falmlen took a leave of absence from Chiles' staff last year and worked as director of the coordinated campaigns for the party.

Before he moved to Florida to work in Democratic campaigns in 1990, Falmlen spent five years as vice president and general manager of National Telecommunications Services Inc., the Washington company that made the telephone calls for the Chiles campaign.

Falmlen denied writing the script for the Chiles campaign, but said that he has written scripts for the company in the past. He said he knew the campaign was making calls to senior citizens but did not know what the final script contained.

Krog took responsibility for the script and the calls, saying he approved them in the final weeks of the campaign "while doing 60,000 other things."

"I blew it," Krog said. "The pressure at the end of the campaign probably detracted from the decision making."

Krog said he first talked to Chiles about it while having dinner at the Governor's Mansion Thursday night and talked to the governor again Friday morning while the letter was being completed.

"The governor said, "You know, it wasn't necessary, we didn't need to do this,' " Krog said. "And he's right."

Krog said he doesn't believe the calls influenced the outcome. He said he is uncertain how many calls were made but believes it may have been between 25,000 and 50,000. The campaign obtained names and numbers of 684,000 senior citizens who voted in 1990 or 1992 on Oct. 5, 1994, from the Democratic Party and spent $360,000 making calls during the final two weeks of the campaign.

Krog said most of the calls were made solely to get Democrats to the polls.

Crist serves as chairman of the Senate's Executive Business, Ethics and Elections Committee and has been investigating the calls since residents of his district complained a year ago. Several residents had tape recordings of the calls, which they gave Crist.

Crist said he was stunned by the governor's disclosure, but won't call off the subpoenas.

"I think clearly we need to know who was responsible, how high up the ladder this went, and why it was covered up for so long," Crist said. "Those things remain unanswered."

On Election Day 1994, Chiles and Krog both denied knowing about the calls.

Krog said Chiles and MacKay did not know about the calls. He said the campaign didn't offer an explanation sooner because they had decided "this isn't substance, it's politics, let Sen. Crist have his fun and let this run its course."

It became obvious Friday when the subpoenas were issued that questions were not going to go away. Krog said Brochin was already preparing the letter but put the "finishing touches" on it after they learned of the subpoenas.

Krog said he advised the governor's staff to "just say what happened."