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Philip Busey, a soft-spoken University of Florida horticulture professor, reluctantly ran for public office this year. His bid to become a member of the Davie Town Council seemed to be going well until he was labeled an Internet pornographer.
The 59-year-old Busey, for the record, is not an Internet pornographer. But the truth didn't matter. Not after a bogus story was published in the Sun-Sentinel. And certainly not after a character assassination campaign organized by a criminal and financed by what amounts to a legal Republican-controlled political sludge fund reached every voter in his district with mailings and phone calls.
No, after that, Busey was a pornographer in many eyes. Perception is reality. And it almost certainly cost him the race.
The bizarre and disgraceful series of events began with a phone call February 28, less than two weeks before Election Day. Before his phone rang that day, Busey had made himself a formidable candidate by distinguishing himself from the two women he was running against, incumbent Susan Starkey and former councilwoman Terry Santini.
He was, for instance, the lone Democrat among the trio. Busey, one of Broward County's first and most ardent Iraq War opponents, was also the only candidate who promised to vote against the Commons, a controversial 152-acre hotel and shopping development planned for the middle of a quiet and rural Davie neighborhood on the western outlands.
Another key difference was that Busey wasn't connected to powerful special interests. Starkey was backed by tycoon developer Ronnie Bergeron and his lobbyist girlfriend, Ali Waldman. Santini had the support of lobbyist Ron Book, one of the most powerful political operatives in Florida, along with Book's friend and associate Scott Cowan, a former Davie mayor and Broward County Commission chairman who left elected office amid scandal in 2000.
Both opponents raised more than double the money Busey did, but he had the Democratic label working for him, and he knocked on hundreds of doors. By the time that phone call came, he had as good a shot to win as anyone.
He remembers the voice on the other end vividly. In fact, he'll never forget it. Veteran Sun-Sentinelreporter Buddy Nevins introduced himself and asked him: "Do you own the website haulover.com?"
"Yes," Busey responded.
He didn't know it, but his campaign was already doomed.
Nevins asked Busey the purpose of the website. Busey told him he originally formed it to promote Haulover Beach, which allows nudism. Nevins asked him why the site had hardcore pornography links on it.
"I told him I didn't know they were there," Busey says.
The truth was that Busey hadn't had anything to do with the site in months. The previous year, he'd removed all its content and "parked" it with an Internet service called sedo.com that holds sites for possible sale. While parked, random advertising links rotated on it, and some of them were porn-related. Busey had no control over the links and says he didn't know they were there.
He says he tried to explain that to Nevins, but the reporter, who has been covering politics in Broward for nearly 30 years, apparently didn't listen.
One of Busey's opponents, Santini, also remembers getting a phone call that day.
"Buddy asked me, 'Do you know that your opponent has hardcore porn links on his website?' I said you have to be kidding," she recalls. "You know, that's like a candidate's dream come true, to have an opponent with that kind of baggage. He said, 'No, I'm not kidding; he just admitted it to me. '"
The next day, March 1, an article was published on the front of the Local section under the headline "Web site an issue in Davie." The first lines of Nevins' story were all it took to smear Busey beyond recognition:
"A Davie Town Council candidate admitted on Wednesday he owned an Internet pornography site, but said it has no bearing on whether he should be elected on March 13."
Then he quoted Busey saying, "It's registered to me and I developed the page... [But] this is a personal issue involving consenting adults. This campaign should be about issues."
Busey says Nevins basically sutured together the quote, which was about two different things, using the ellipsis as the thread. The "personal issue" wasn't about porn, he says, but about whether he visited the nudist Haulover Beach.
Pornography is one thing; nudism is another. Nevins apparently blended them in a way that made Busey look defensive and sleazy at the same time. He also failed to report that the site was parked at sedo.com and that Busey didn't put the links on the site.
Instead he wrote, "Busey said he registered the site almost eight years ago to advocate for nudism on Florida's beaches but changed it to a pornography link. He did not say why."
The day the story was published, Busey and a campaign volunteer, attorney and fellow Democratic activist Randy Fleischer, contacted the newspaper to demand a retraction. After editors heard Busey's side of the story, they took Nevins' article off the Sentinelwebsite and published a correction stating that Busey's website had been "mischaracterized": "The site, being held by a 'domain parking' service, contained links to pornographic Web sites but did not display porn."