All You Need to Smear
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-Sentinel reporter 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 Sentinel website 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."
The newspaper also put another reporter, Jon Burstein, on the story. The article Burstein wrote, which accurately and fairly reported the facts, was published March 4. Unfortunately for Busey, it was analogous to the proverbial "Politician didn't beat wife" headline.
While the Sentinel seemed to handle the aftermath well, it made one more big blunder. In a Community News story the following Sunday, it repeated the false information that "Busey made headlines of his own last week when he admitted he owned a porn site."
Again, the newspaper had to run a correction.
But by that time, the damage had already been done. On March 2, a group with the nebulous apple-pie name of "Parents to Protect Our Children" filed paperwork with the Division of Elections in Tallahassee. The next day, it collected a $15,000 contribution from another political committee called "Floridians for Conservative Values," which has an address at a Tallahassee mail drop.
Both are "527" committees, which are largely unregulated and often used as secretive political slush funds that trash candidates from afar.
The same day the $15,000 check came in, mass mailings were sent out to voters in Busey's Davie district with a truncated version of Nevins' error-riddled story that had a fake headline of "Candidate: So what if I own a porn site?" On the other side of the mailing were these words in large bold print: "DOES DAVIE TOWN COUNCIL CANDIDATE PHIL BUSEY MAKE MONEY FROM PORNOGRAPHY? YE$."
Two more mailings accusing Busey of being a pornographer were mailed in the days before the election as well. There were also phone "push polls" in which callers asked voters if they were aware that Busey ran a pornographic website.
With his district saturated with the accusation, Busey faced a nightmare electoral Catch-22. He wanted to explain that he wasn't a pornographer, but to deny it only brought more attention to it.
In a subsequent debate with Starkey and Santini, he felt that he had to address the issue. He explained that it wasn't true in both his opening and closing statements.
"It clearly caused a concern for people who didn't know me personally," he says of the porn allegations. "It slowed me down. That was the most damaging part of it. Suddenly I'm having to write letters to the Sun-Sentinel, and I have to deal with this. I would have rather spent more time knocking on doors and dealing with the issues."
Despite the buckets of slime thrown on Busey and his campaign, he almost won the election, coming in second behind incumbent Starkey by a mere 60 votes.
After the loss, Busey was still trying to figure out who planted the story in the Sentinel. Speculation naturally fell on Starkey backer Ali Waldman, who is known by virtually everyone involved in the Broward County political scene to have a close relationship with Nevins.
Nevins denied that Waldman was the source of the story in a letter from his personal attorney, Christopher Fertig, to New Times. Waldman didn't respond to a call for comment.
The reporter, one of the most experienced political reporters in South Florida, has often been seen socializing with Waldman and her beau, Bergeron. During the past several years, he has written frequent glowing stories about the lobbyist and her friends while tossing barbs at candidates she opposes.
The reporter made news last year when he announced at a local Republican club meeting that he had joined the GOP. That revelation led Sentinel Editor Earl Maucker to terminate Nevins' political column. The reporter's avowed conservatism might help to explain why he slammed the liberal Busey in such an unfair and haphazard way.
At least one source close to the story says Waldman gave Nevins the information on Busey. Nevins, who has had only one new bylined story published since the bogus Busey piece and who hasn't denied widespread talk that he is taking an early-retirement package from the newspaper, refused to comment on the source. Waldman didn't return my phone calls.
Although finding out who was behind the article may prove impossible, it wasn't hard to pinpoint who started Parents to Protect Our Children. The committee is registered to a Davie man named Gregory Ostroff, who happens to be the son-in-law of none other than Scott Cowan, the disgraced politician.
Cowan's motivation to hurt Busey isn't difficult to ascertain either. He not only backed Santini but also worked on the Commons project that Busey opposed. In addition, Cowan serves as a lobbyist for a company, AshBritt Inc., that has a multimillion-dollar debris-hauling contract with the town.
Calls made to Cowan's cell phone weren't returned, but I did reach his son-in-law Ostroff. Before hanging up on me, he said he was in a meeting and couldn't talk.
Apparently nobody tied to the Parents committee wants to break their silence. Busey says he saw Scott Cowan at a voting site on Election Day and pointedly asked him how his son-in-law was doing.
"He didn't answer," Busey says. "He just looked at the pavement and walked away."
Cowan didn't walk away from politics in the year 2000 he was forced out. State investigators discovered that he funneled thousands of campaign dollars to his daughters including Courtney, who is now Ostroff's wife and wrote bogus checks to fictionalized people. He was charged with violating election laws and served five months in jail.
He had been lying relatively low during the years since. And this sordid affair wouldn't seem to constitute an auspicious return for the former king of Broward.
But what about Floridians for Conservative Values, the group that actually financed the Cowan family's mud-slinging machine? Well, it's tied to several Republican-based 527 committees run by West Palm Beach political consultant Randy Nielsen, who is known as one of Florida's premier negative campaigners.
Floridians for Conservative Values has raised more than $1 million most of it from Big Sugar, the home-building industry, and gambling companies, including the Hollywood Greyhound Track. That's right, the "conservative" cause is bankrolled by gamblers; how's that for irony?
I got Nielsen, who runs a flag-waving consulting company called Public Concepts, on the phone last week and asked him why his group gave 15 grand to slam a little candidate in Davie.
"When it came to the group's attention about this fellow's background, it seemed like something they would want to invest in," Nielsen explained. "They are a fairly conservative group, and this candidate had an Internet porn site, according to what the newspaper said."
When Scott Cowan's name was mentioned, he said he had nothing more to say. I asked him why gambling money was backing such a conservative group. Nielsen quickly concluded the interview.
Book, the megalobbyist who works with Cowan and also backed Santini, told me he had nothing to do with the Sentinel article or the Parents committee.
"If it was up to me, I would abolish all 527s," he said. "They should all be outlawed."
Book is an intensely busy man, so he may have forgotten that he gave $2,500 to the committee in 2004. But he may be onto something. Maybe abolishing 527s is an issue for Busey to champion during his next campaign.
The problem is, he says he may never run for office again.
"I just really want to put this behind me," he told me. "I don't want to discourage people from running for public office, and I really just want to focus on my work."
Count it as another win for dubious special interests and sleazy political operatives who often put a stranglehold on the democratic process.
"This is what happens to a really good guy who sticks his neck out and runs for town council," says Fleischer, the campaign manager. "It's no wonder more good people don't run for office."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.