Nowhere in America is corruption as sunny, open and in your-face brazen as it is in the state of Florida. The state that couldn’t count the votes in 2000 (but had no trouble training terrorists to fly) has been in the news almost ever since.
The gold standard for corruption used to be Miami, but that torch appears to have been passed (when no one was looking, natch) to a Tony haven for the nouveau riche on the Gulf Coast, Katherine Harris' hometown, Sarasota.
It "might could," as they say in Texas, even be part of some long-term plan, since George W. Bush's famous cadre of rich supporters, the Rangers, were incorporated, strangely, not in Texas, but in Sarasota, in the long ago year of 1993.
Sarasota demonstrated its big league credentials once again recently when it played host to yet-another "botched" (read STOLEN) Congressional contest between Democrat Christine Jennings and Republican Vern Buchanan, where almost 18,000 voters found themselves disenfranchised, and their votes uncounted.
A 'conspiracy theorists' field trip to Sarasota
A first hint that something might be untoward perhaps came a few days before the election, when President Bush reluctantly made a campaign appearance in support of Republican ultra-rich car dealer Buchanan. It was his first visit to Sarasota since the memorable morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
As many recall, Mr. Bush was reading aloud from the book “My Pet Goat” in a Sarasota classroom when Andrew Card stepped forward to whisper news of the attack on the Twin Towers.
Nine long minutes then went by before Bush rose from his seat and returned to his presidential duties, and there has since been much speculation as to why. We think the answer may be something as simple as the fact that “My Pet Goat” is a page-turner, and Mr. Bush might have just been getting to the good part.
Alternatively, Bush, like many readers, may have felt scared at that point in the story where the girl's dad says the goat has to go, because he eats too many things.
Sadly, we may never know.
An 'accidental' candidate gets a reprieve
It should be noted that Vern Buchanan was very much an accidental candidate; despite spending millions, he owed his success in the Republican primary, in large measure, to his opponent's unfortunate observation that it is common knowledge that black folks can’t swim.
Even in Sarasota, this was thought to be, perhaps, a little much.
Enter one of the main characters in the election drama, Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent, whose most significant decision in office, reported the local Sarasota Herald Tribune, had been to push Sarasota County to purchase touch screen voting machines in 2001.
Some questioned the accuracy of the machines, not to mention their whopping 4.8 million price tag. But Kathy Dent was steadfast in her support. She stayed the electronic touch screen course.
John Gotti, Potter Palmer… and Cruella
Before addressing the nuts and bolts of Ms. Dent's singular accomplishments, let's first take a look at the city of Sarasota, where they occurred.
Sarasota is a community whose conservative Republican family values can, alas, occasionally seem as smudged as Katherine Harris’ lipstick after an evening out with an enthusiastic right-minded young male intern somewhere on the campaign trail.
An aside: Ms. Harris' local reputation, before becoming famous as Florida's Secretary of State in the botched 2000 Presidential election, was not what anyone would characterize as "rock-ribbed conservative."
Also not thought of as conservative was former Mafia Don John Gotti, who owned a three-lot completely walled-in complex on the Gulf in Sarasota which, we understand, positively bristled with state-of-the-art security cameras.
An all-too-brief history of the idle rich
This slice of Florida's Gulf Coast (from Sarasota to Venice, a distance of 20 miles) ultimately owes its place in the annals of civilization to Potter Palmer, a wealthy Chicago merchant of the mid-1800s.
Potter Palmer's widow, Bertha, used a portion of his considerable fortune to buy up land for what became the huge Ponderosa-sized Palmer Ranch, where she entertained friends who came down to visit during the frigid Midwestern winters.
Another aside: When Potter Palmer was drawing up his will, which left everything to Bertha, reputedly a headstrong woman with an indomitable spirit, his lawyer counseled against it, warning him that his fortune might end up in the hands of a stranger if his wife ever married again.
To which Palmer retorted: "If she does, he'll need the money."
More about those Republican Family Values
Almost a hundred years later, the Palmer Ranch still owned 70% of the land suitable for development in Sarasota County.
That's when it was purchased by the multimillionaire owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hugh Culverhouse.
While Hugh Culverhouse is not likely to appear anytime soon in the NFL’S Hall of Fame, he is, in fact, remembered, if only for his passing.
At the age of 75, Culverhouse was stricken by cancer, and in a last-ditch effort opted for a radical treatment never tested before (or probably since) on a human being.
Culverhouse was infused with a massive dose of radioactive iodine, which had been previously attached to a hormone designed to seek out the tumors so the radiation would kill them.
Smart bombs, foolish choices
So much radioactive iodine was required to synthesize this biochemical smart bomb that the work was done in a sterile hot room in a nuclear power plant in Lima, Peru.
(Trust us. You can't make this sort of thing up.)
Eventually Hugh Culverhouse had a hospital wing all to himself. But it wasn't a matter of luxury and privilege…
He was radioactive. Standing near him for two minutes was the equivalent of getting a chest X-ray. The medical team wore the same protective clothing used by nuclear power plant workers.
A post-nup, some radiation, then off to Vegas baby
By the time he was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, Culverhouse was worth well over $200-million. But he led his wife to believe he was near bankruptcy.
Only by signing a post-nup, she was told, could she stay out of the poorhouse. So she signed.
When Culverhouse died in a New Orleans hospital on Aug. 25, 1994 at age 75, he was eulogized as a "world-class philanthropist" and "a real gentleman."
That was well before his wife discovered that he was, in fact, a world-class philanderer.
Hugh Culverhouse was banking on walking out of the hospital–a new man at age 75-– and then divorcing his wife, of 52 years, so he could marry one of his girlfriends.
But, which girlfriend? Ay, there's the rub.
The best-laid plans of mice and men
One former girlfriend, a country club waitress turned photographer, got $150,000 to keep their affair quiet. Another contender for the honor of being the next Mrs. Culverhouse was Susan Brinkley, the wife of broadcaster David Brinkley.
Culverhouse had given Susan Brinkley a job decorating his Palmer Ranch real estate project in Sarasota. The two took vacations to Africa together. Susan Brinkley began telling her friends that she and Culverhouse were planning to marry.
Hugh Culverhouse left behind a series of secret mistresses, as well as one very angry widow.
None of his mistresses was by his bedside when he died. Neither was his wife, nor anyone from his family.
The Palmer Ranch story pay-off
When Hugh Culverhouse's poor widow testified later that she never knew of her husband's infidelities, she told reporters outside the courtroom, "I'd like to pull him out of the grave and shoot him."
It was somewhere around this time that Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent, at the center of today's controversy over the 18,000 missing votes in the Congressional contest in Florida’s 13th district, first moved to Sarasota.
Her husband, John, had just become the Palmer Ranch’s in-house attorney.
And, as Jackie Gleason used to say, "Away we go!"
Tomorrow: Part II: The Psy-Op Helping to Steal Sarasota's Election