Juggernaut Update Part II: Playing Footsy with the Lobbyist

Looks like our Katherine has been playingfast and loose with lobbying laws again.

In calling Democrat Bill Nelson a “do-nothing senator,” U.S. Senate challenger Katherine Harris talks up her signature legislation in Congress, the American Dream Downpayment Act, which she tells voters she passed in “record time” to help the poor, little guy buy his first home.

But the congresswoman never mentions one person who also benefited from the act: B. Dan Berger, who left his post as chief of staff of her congressional office to lobby for one of the act’s prime backers, America’s Community Bankers.

Berger began lobbying on the issue so quickly that his name appears on the bankers’ group lobbying report that covers the first half of 2003, though he was with Harris until the end of May 2003. It’s illegal for a congressional staffer to lobby a former boss within one year, and Berger says he did nothing wrong because he followed the law.

Harris — who stopped making exaggerated claims about the number of people being helped by the act after a primary challenger raised questions — also denied any wrongdoing.

But Nelson’s campaign staff and critics of Washington’s culture of insider influence say the act points to a weakness in the Republican’s candidacy — close ties to special interests that sometimes ride the line of legality. They point to Harris unwittingly accepting tainted campaign money from a crooked defense contractor and from corrupt congressman Bob Ney, who helped push the American Dream legislation through the House.


“I never lobbied Katherine Harris,” Berger said. He is listed on the bankers organization’s lobbying report covering the period of January through June 2003, but said he didn’t work the issue until after he left Harris’s office.

“I did lobby that issue and I never lobbied her,” said Berger, who no longer works with the bankers group.

Harris’ congressional spokesman, Gerry Fritz, said she “absolutely did not” discuss the legislation with Berger, who worked on Harris’ 2002 congressional campaign and is mentioned in her 2002 book as a friend. But Fritz said Berger was a small player in helping pass the legislation that gives poor and minority first-time homebuyers a downpayment and closing-cost subsidies of up to $10,000 or 6 percent of closing costs, whichever is greater.


This year, Harris again touted the legislation, noting she got it passed within a year of being in office — looking to draw a contrast between herself and Nelson, whom she says has had no signature legislation since his election in 2000.

But in singling out the law, Harris repeatedly claimed the act helped 4.5 million people buy their first home.

The number of people really helped? About 13,000, according to analysts with the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ accounting arm. Also, the GAO noted, Congress has never come close to fully funding the $200 million act, authorizing only $25 millon to be spent this year — the lowest amount since 2004.


Former staffers have been questioned in connection with her relationship with defense contractor Mitchell Wade, for whom she sponsored a failed $10 million appropriation that would have benefited his business, MZM.

The previous time Harris received illegal contributions was in the mid-1990s when she — as well as Nelson and other state legislators at the time — received phony contributor money from the insurance company Riscorp, for which Berger was once a lobbyist.

‘Whether it’s her conduct with a lobbyist like Mr. Berger or a contributor like Mitchell Wade, there’s a pattern in Harris’ dishonesty and her devotion to furthering her own interests,” Gulley said.