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Bush's Conspiracy to Riot

By Robert Parry

August 5, 2002

More than three decades apart, two political riots influenced the outcome of U.S. presidential elections. In 1968, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago hurt Democrat Hubert Humphrey and helped Republican Richard Nixon eke out a victory. On Nov. 22, 2000, the so-called “Brooks Brothers Riot” of Republican activists helped stop a vote recount in Miami -- and showed how far George W. Bush’s supporters were ready to go to put their man in the White House.

But the government reaction to the two events was dramatically different. The clashes between police and Vietnam War protesters in 1968 led the Nixon administration to charge seven anti-war radicals with “conspiring to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot.” The defendants, who became known as the Chicago Seven, were later acquitted of conspiracy charges, in part, because the protests were loosely organized and because solid documentary evidence was lacking.

After the Miami “Brooks Brothers Riot” – named after the protesters’ preppie clothing – no government action was taken beyond the police rescuing several Democrats who were surrounded and roughed up by the rioters. While no legal charges were filed against the Republicans, newly released documents show that at least a half dozen of the publicly identified rioters were paid by Bush’s recount committee.

The payments to the Republican activists are documented in hundreds of pages of Bush committee records – released grudgingly to the Internal Revenue Service last month, 19 months after the 36-day recount battle ended. Overall, the records provide a road map of how the Bush recount team brought its operatives across state lines to stop then-Vice President Al Gore’s recount efforts.

The records show that the Bush committee spent a total of $13.8 million to frustrate the recount of Florida’s votes and secure the state's crucial electoral votes for Bush. By contrast, the Gore recount operation spent $3.2 million, about one quarter of the Bush total. Bush spent more just on lawyers – $4.4 million – than Gore did on his entire effort.

Extended Deadline

The new evidence was submitted by the Bush recount committee to the IRS under an extended deadline for disclosures of soft-money spending by so-called “527 committees,” which are not directly related to a candidate’s campaign. Bush lawyers had argued that they were not obligated legally to disclose how they had raised and spent their money.

The Bush committee finally reversed itself and filed the records on July 15. The records were released to the public on the IRS Web site in late July. Gore's committee submitted its records in line with the original IRS deadlines.

The documents show that the Bush organization put on the payroll about 250 staffers, spent about $1.2 million to fly operatives to Florida and elsewhere, and paid for hotel bills adding up to about $1 million. To add flexibility to the travel arrangements, a fleet of corporate jets was assembled, including planes owned by Enron Corp., then run by Bush backer Kenneth Lay, and Halliburton Co., where Dick Cheney had served as chairman and chief executive officer.

Only a handful of the Brooks Brothers rioters were publicly identified, some through photographs published in the Washington Post. Jake Tapper’s book on the recount battle, Down and Dirty, provides a list of 12 Republican operatives who took part in the Miami riot. Half of those individuals received payments from the Bush recount committee, according to the IRS records.

The Miami protesters who were paid by Bush recount committee were: Matt Schlapp, a Bush staffer who was based in Austin and received $4,276.09; Thomas Pyle, a staff aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, $456; Michael Murphy, a DeLay fund-raiser, $935.12; Garry Malphrus, House majority chief counsel to the House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice, $330; Charles Royal, a legislative aide to Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. $391.80; and Kevin Smith, a former GOP House staffer, $373.23.

Three of the Miami protesters are now members of Bush’s White House staff, the Miami Herald reported last month. They include Schlapp, who is now a special assistant to the president; Malphrus, who is now deputy director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council; and Joel Kaplan, another special assistant to the president. [See Miami Herald, July 14, 2002]

The Bush committee records show, too, that Bush’s operation paid for the hotel where the Republican protesters celebrated after the Miami riot at a Thanksgiving Day party. At the party, the activists received thank-you phone calls from Bush and Cheney, and were serenaded by crooner Wayne Newton, singing “Danke Schoen,” German for thank-you very much. [Wall Street Journal, Nov. 27, 2000; Consortiumnews.com's "W's Triumph of the Will"]

The IRS records show that the Bush recount committee paid $35,501.52 to the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the party was held.

The House of Masquerades

A number of miscellaneous expenses, reported by the Bush recount committee, also appear to have gone for party items, such as lighting, sound systems and even costumes. Garrett Sound and Lighting in Fort Lauderdale was paid $5,902; Beach Sound Inc. in North Miami was paid $3,500; and the House of Masquerades, a costume shop in Miami, had three payments totaling $640.92, according to the Bush records.

The Brooks Brothers Riot – carried live on CNN and other networks – marked a turning point in the recount battle. At the time, Bush clung to a lead that had dwindled to several hundred votes and Gore was pressing for recounts. The riot in Miami and the prospects of spreading violence were among the arguments later cited by defenders of the 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dec. 12, 2000, that stopped a statewide Florida recount and handed Bush the presidency.

Backed by the $13.8 million war chest, the Bush operation made clear in Miami and in other protests that it was ready to kick up plenty of political dust if it didn’t get its way.

A later unofficial recount by news organizations found that if all legally cast ballots in Florida had been counted – regardless of which kinds of chads were accepted, whether punched-through, hanging or dimpled – Gore would have won Florida and thus the presidency. Gore also won the national popular vote, defeating Bush by more than a half million votes, making Bush the first popular-vote loser in more than a century to be installed in the White House. [Consortiumnews.com's "So Bush Did Steal the White House"]

Across State Lines

The evidence also is clear that the Bush campaign organized the transportation of Republican activists across state lines into Florida. As early as mid-November, the Bush campaign called on activists to rush to Florida and promised to pay their expenses. “We now need to send reinforcements,” the Bush campaign said in an appeal to Republicans on Nov. 18, 2000. “The campaign will pay airfare and hotel expenses for people willing to go.” [See Tapper’s Down and Dirty.]

These reinforcements – many of them Republican staffers from Capitol Hill – added an angrier tone to the dueling street protests already underway between supporters of Bush and Gore. The new wave of Republican activists injected “venom and volatility into an already edgy situation,” wrote Tapper.

“This is the new Republican Party, sir!” Brad Blakeman, Bush’s campaign director of advance travel logistics, bellowed into a bullhorn to disrupt a CNN correspondent interviewing a Democratic congressman. “We’re not going to take it anymore!”

Around the country, the conservative media apparatus, led by talk show host Rush Limbaugh and pro-Bush pundits, rallied the faithful with charges that a hand recount was fraudulent and amounted to "inventing" votes.

Bush himself did nothing to temper the inflammatory rhetoric. Nor did he urge his supporters to respect the legally sanctioned vote counting.

Instead, Bush's recount representative, James Baker, and Bush himself denounced the Florida Supreme Court, which had ordered that recount results be included in the official vote tallies. Bush accused the court of abusing its powers in a bid to "usurp" the authority of the legislature.

The Battle of Miami

On Nov. 22, 2000, after learning that the Miami canvassing board was starting an examination of 10,750 disputed ballots that had previously not been counted, Rep. John Sweeney, a New York Republican, called on Republican troops to “shut it down,” according to Down and Dirty. Brendan Quinn, executive director of the New York GOP, told about two dozen Republican operatives to storm the room on the 19th floor where the canvassing board was meeting, Tapper reported.

“Emotional and angry, they immediately make their way outside the larger room in which the tabulating room is contained,” Tapper wrote. “The mass of ‘angry voters’ on the 19th floor swells to maybe 80 people,” including many of the Republican activists from outside Florida.

News cameras captured the chaotic scene outside the canvassing board's offices. The protesters shouted slogans and banged on the doors and walls. The unruly protest prevented official observers and members of the press from reaching the room. Miami-Dade county spokesman Mayco Villafana was pushed and shoved. Security officials feared the confrontation was spinning out of control.

The canvassing board suddenly reversed its decision and canceled the recount. “Until the demonstration stops, nobody can do anything,” said David Leahy, Miami’s supervisor of elections, although the canvassing board members would later insist that they were not intimidated into stopping the recount. [Down and Dirty]

A Sample Ballot

While the siege of the canvassing board office was underway, county Democratic chairman Joe Geller stopped at another office seeking a sample ballot. He wanted to demonstrate his theory that some voters had intended to vote for Gore but instead marked an adjoining number that represented no candidate.

As Geller took the ballot marked “sample,” one of the Republican activists began shouting, “This guy’s got a ballot!”

In Down and Dirty, Tapper writes: “The masses swarm around him, yelling, getting in his face, pushing him, grabbing him. ‘Arrest him!’ they cry. ‘Arrest him!’ With the help of a diminutive DNC aide, Luis Rosero, and the political director of the Miami Gore campaign, Joe Fraga, Geller manages to wrench himself into the elevator.

“Rosero, who stays back to talk to the press, gets kicked, punched. A woman pushes him into a much larger guy, seemingly trying to instigate a fight. In the lobby of the building, a group of 50 or so Republicans are crushed around Geller, surrounding him. …

“The cops escort Geller back to the 19th floor, so the elections officials can see what’s going on, investigate the charges. Of course, it turns out that all Geller had was a sample ballot. The crowd is pulling at the cops, pulling at Geller. It’s insanity! Some even get in the face of 73-year-old Rep. Carrie Meek. Democratic operatives decide to pull out of the area altogether.” [Tapper’s Down and Dirty]

Despite the use of intimidation to influence actions by election officials, Bush and his top aides remained publicly silent about these disruptive tactics. The Washington Post reported that "even as the Bush campaign and the Republicans portray themselves as above the fray," national Republicans actually had joined in and helped finance the raucous protests. [Washington Post, Nov. 27, 2000]

The Wall Street Journal added more details, including the fact that Bush offered personal words of encouragement to the rioters in a conference call to a Bush campaign-sponsored celebration on the night of Thanksgiving Day, one day after the canvassing board assault.

"The night's highlight was a conference call from Mr. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney, which included joking reference by both running mates to the incident in Miami, two [Republican] staffers in attendance say," according to the Journal. [Nov. 27, 2000]

The Journal also reported that the assault on the canvassing board was led by national Republican operatives "on all expense-paid trips, courtesy of the Bush campaign." After their success in Dade, the rioters moved on to Broward, where the protests remained unruly but failed to stop that count.

The Journal noted that "behind the rowdy rallies in South Florida this past weekend was a well-organized effort by Republican operatives to entice supporters to South Florida," with DeLay's Capitol Hill office taking charge of the recruitment.

About 200 Republican congressional staffers signed on, the Journal reported. They were put up at hotels, given $30 a day for food and "an invitation to an exclusive Thanksgiving Day party in Fort Lauderdale," the article said.

Upper Hand

The Journal said there was no evidence of a similar Democratic strategy to fly in national party operatives. "This has allowed the Republicans to quickly gain the upper hand, protest-wise," the Journal said.

The Bush campaign also worked to conceal its hand. "Staffers who joined the effort say there has been an air of mystery to the operation. 'To tell you the truth, nobody knows who is calling the shots,' says one aide. Many nights, often very late, a memo is slipped underneath the hotel-room doors outlining coming events," the Journal reported.

On Nov. 25, the Bush campaign issued “talking points” to justify the Miami protest, calling it “fitting, proper” and blaming the canvassing board for the disruptions. “The board made a series of bad decisions and the reaction to it was inevitable and well justified,” the Bush campaign said. [Down and Dirty]

Still, other recounts in Broward County whittled down Bush's lead. Gore was gaining slowly in Palm Beach's recount, despite constant challenges from Republican observers.

To boost Bush's margin back up, Republican Secretary of State Harris allowed Nassau County to throw out its recounted figures that had helped Gore. Then, excluding a partial recount in Palm Beach and with Miami shut down, Harris certified Bush the winner by 537 votes.

Bush partisans cheered their victory and began demanding that Bush be called the president-elect. Soon afterwards, Bush appeared on national television to announce himself the winner and to call on Gore to concede defeat.

"Now," Bush said, "we must live up to our principles. We must show our commitment to the common good, which is bigger than any person or any party."

Changed Course

To many Gore supporters, the aborted recount in Miami changed the course of the Florida events, preventing Gore from narrowing Bush’s small lead or possibly edging ahead.

The Brooks Brothers Riot also represented an escalation of tactics, demonstrating the potential for spiraling political violence if the recount battle dragged on. The Republicans were putting down a marker that they were prepared to do what was necessary to win, regardless of what the voters had wanted.

After the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount to determine who won the state and thus the presidency, Bush sent his lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court where five Republican justices decided on Dec. 9, 2000, to stop the counting of votes. Then, on Dec. 12, the same five Republicans blocked a resumption. The disruptions in November had played out the clock so a slim majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could effectively award the White House to Bush. 

Unlike the Chicago Seven case three decades earlier, no one faced charges for disrupting the Miami recount.

In the Chicago Seven case, the jury acquitted all defendants of conspiracy charges, though finding five defendants – David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin – individually guilty of inciting a riot, charges that later were reversed on appeal. Separate government investigations also faulted the Chicago police for using excessive violence to quell the 1968 protests.

Ironically, the kind of documentary evidence that might have proved valuable in tying up the loose ends of the Chicago Seven conspiracy is present in the new filings that the Bush recount committee made to the IRS. The evidence is clear that the Bush committee organized the movement of protesters across state lines, paid for their lodging, moved them into a position for the riot, and then defended their actions.

After the incident, Bush personally thanked some of the participants at a celebration paid for by Bush’s organization. Since taking office, Bush has further rewarded some of the participants with high-level government jobs.

But the biggest reason for the very different government reactions to the Chicago Seven case and the Brooks Brothers Riot is obvious: the ultimate beneficiary of the Miami riot is now president of the United States.

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