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Pruitt's Fiery Letter Raises Hackles

Ken Pruitt

The liberal-baiting fundraising appeal by the designated next Senate leader threatens the body's collegiality, say some Democrats.

Published January 27, 2006
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times

TALLAHASSEE - State Sen. Ken Pruitt, a Port St. Lucie Republican poised to become Senate president in the fall, has set off a furor with a party fundraising letter that accuses "liberal judges, the radical ACLU and the anti-God left" of assaulting the Pledge of Allegiance and the Boy Scouts.

The Republican Party of Florida paid for the letter, but the letterhead names Pruitt as "chairman, Florida Senate Rules Committee," and in the letter he says: "I have a lot of influence over what bills are voted on."

Pruitt cited a California federal judge who ruled last year that reciting the pledge in public schools is unconstitutional because it includes the words "under God." And he told Republicans that liberals are using civil rights laws to prevent Boy Scouts from meeting in public buildings and parks.

The letter asks recipients to mail copies of an "emergency petition" to the Senate to "save the Boy Scouts and the Pledge of Allegiance from being outlawed by liberal Florida judges."

"Part of my purpose with this bill is to force liberals in the Florida Senate to take a stand one way or the other," Pruitt writes.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has filed a bill to require that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited in schools, but no Senate legislation has been filed to protect the Boy Scouts.

An ethics law expert, Mark Herron, said Pruitt could face ethics problems and a possible Senate rules violation if it is found he used his office to solicit contributions.

Herron, who advises Democrats, said the ethics code bars an official from using his position in a corrupt manner to secure a benefit for himself and others, and Senate rules require senators to "maintain the integrity and responsibility" of the office.

Senate President Tom Lee was not aware of Pruitt's letter before it went out.

Pruitt, 48, was a conservative firebrand a decade ago in the House, but as a senator he became a fierce supporter of tax reform, including eliminating millions in sales tax breaks for businesses.

He has been one of the Senate's most popular members. When designated the next Senate president last month, Pruitt struck a conciliatory tone and highlighted the diversity of senators' backgrounds and philosophies.

Democrats said the strident tone of Pruitt's letter threatens to unravel the collegiality in the clubby, 40-member body as an election year gets under way.

"What the hell has happened to this guy?" said Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale. "This is not the Ken Pruitt that I knew. . . . I think Pruitt has just lost it."

In an interview, Pruitt said: "I don't regret any of it. . . . I feel very strongly about this issue."

Pruitt's letter asked Republicans to mail campaign donations to the West Palm Beach office of Randy Nielsen, a political strategist who has worked with Pruitt on many campaigns.

Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman called on the Senate to consider formally censuring Pruitt for the letter. She noted that Democratic Sen. Mandy Dawson of Fort Lauderdale was censured last year for soliciting funds from lobbyists for a trade mission to Africa.

"The GOP culture of corruption that has poisoned the atmosphere of Capitol Hill is being cultivated here in Tallahassee," Thurman said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.