Trickster in Chief

The assault on Scott Israel, a man who very well might be Broward County's next sheriff, came fast and furious a week before Election Day.

First came mailers comparing Israel to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for changing his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat before filing to run in last week's primary.

Then came the Tricky Dick videos, which were both emailed en masse and put up on YouTube. One of the campaign ads has a photoshopped version of Richard Nixon talking in front of the White House.

"This is President Richard Milhouse Nixon with an important message for Broward County Democrats," dubs a topnotch Nixon impersonator. "Scott Israel is a good man. In fact, he was a Republican only months ago. He's really one of us, you see... Scott Israel is my kind of guy, a real operator. And just like me, he is not a crook."

Other videos feature George W. Bush ("I like to think Scott Israel is a Bush Republican at heart... God bless Scott Israel"), a heavily lisping Rudy Giuliani ("Scott Israel reminds me of my ex-partner Bernie Kerik: Shoot first, ask questions later"), and Pat Robertson ("Pray for brother Scott Israel").

The ads targeting Israel were both well-made and funny. That isn't surprising when you consider who was behind them: none other than America's dirty trickster in chief, Roger Stone.

Several sources have confirmed that Stone, the famed Republican electioneering hit man who began his career as an operative for Richard Nixon, put together the anti-Israel campaign for a local political committee with the deliciously ironic name of the Broward Coalition for Justice & Equality.

Scott Rothstein, a Stone partner and head of the GOP heavyweight Fort Lauderdale law firm where Stone has an office, acknowledged as much.

"I can tell you without a doubt that Roger Stone was involved in that campaign," said Rothstein, managing partner of Rothstein, Rosenfeldt & Adler and friend and major fundraiser for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican presidential contender John McCain.

Stone's campaign dealt a blow to Israel's support, but it wasn't quite enough to knock him out of the winner's circle. He barely survived a late surge by candidate Richard Lemack to earn the right to challenge Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, a Republican appointed to the post by Crist, in the November election.

The ads were classic Stone. While some of the attacks were perfectly legitimate (Israel did switch parties, after all), the operative couldn't resist stretching it a bit when it came to the candidate's history of using force as a police officer in Fort Lauderdale.

But if the primary was any indication, Israel will have a lot more negative ads to contend with. Because this campaign had little to do with Lemack and everything to do with Lamberti.

The connections are obvious. The bulk of the money used in Stone's campaign was contributed by a company owned by longtime Boca Raton restaurateur Anthony Bova. The operator of Bova Ristorante and Mario's of Boca gave $150,000 to the Broward Coalition for Justice & Equality. In total, the committee raised $180,000.

Bova has no history in politics in Broward or statewide. His only obvious connection to Stone and Broward politics is a business partnership with Stone's partner Rothstein.

Rothstein is no lightweight. He and his law firm have contributed about $150,000 to the Florida Republican Party in just the past two years. He's a friend of McCain's, who has titled him an "Innovator" for raising more than $250,000 for his campaign and counts him among his informal "Kitchen Cabinet."

And he's especially close to Crist, who has a vested interest in seeing Lamberti elected and who just last week appointed Rothstein to the Judicial Nominating Commission.

Rothstein, however, adamantly denies any involvement with the Broward Coalition for Justice & Equality.

"If a Democrat wants to say I'm a Republican scumbag, fine, but don't say that I have anything to do with what Bova was doing," Rothstein told me. "That was totally unrelated to us. And if somebody slanders my law firm, there will be hell to pay."

I told Rothstein that it made little sense to me that Bova, who didn't return my phone calls, would suddenly jump into Broward politics.

"Tony Bova had his eyes on getting involved in restaurants in Broward County before he and I were partners," Rothstein tried to explain. "He asked me, 'How do I get in? Who do I need to support.' I told him that you want to make sure you have an excellent relationship with the County Commission, the city governance, and an excellent relationship with any police department that controls any area where you are going to do business.

"My guess is that you will see him heavily involved in political races in the future."

Even that made no sense to me. Usually, when a business owner wants to make an impression, he'll go to a fundraiser, bundle up a couple of $500 contributions, try to make a good impression on the politician involved, and call it a day.

But here, Bova was gambling $150,000 on a secretive committee (it's next to impossible to figure out who really runs the thing) that was operating in a primary race.

I told Rothstein that I found it hard to believe. And what about Stone's involvement?

"Here's what everyone misses," Rothstein countered. "Roger Stone, his sole source of business is not my consulting group. He has a business entirely separate from mine, and just because he does something, it doesn't mean I'm involved in it. He gets retained all the time by very strong Republican groups and candidates completely unrelated to my law firm."

He said that when he heard that people from the Israel camp were complaining that he was attacking their candidate, he called lobbyist Judy Stern, who is running the campaign.

"A couple of weeks ago, I called her and told her to stop spreading lies," he said, before directing his words directly at me. "I don't play this game. I'm not like other people in this community."

Rothstein said he hates negative politics and dirty tricks.

"I don't like negative political banter, and I don't like attacks," he told me. "When it comes to my politics, I am a hard-nosed person to deal with, but I don't like dirty politics. I don't like it, and I don't condone it."

Then why did he hire Stone, an unabashedly amoral political operative who made his bones with Nixon and has created devious — and, yes, sometimes ingenious — attack ads ever since?

"Stone is the guy that no one wants to admit to using," Rothstein explained. "But the second the shit hits the fan, it's 'Get me Roger Stone.' I was telling someone just last night that Roger is a guy we keep locked up in his office, and I'll shove food under the door every now and then to feed him. But when something happens and someone needs his help, we'll open the door. You let him out and let him do what he does. Because when he's out, nobody tells him what to do."

Stone was apparently let out of his office last week when I visited Rothstein's expansive law offices on the 16th floor of the Bank of America tower on Las Olas Boulevard. Stone, who wasn't made available for an interview, has a corner office in the back with election memorabilia — from Nixon to Eisenhower to Kennedy to Reagan — covering the hallways and walls.

There's a photo of a younger Stone with Reagan, with the former president's inscription: "Words can't express my appreciation. Very best regards, Ronald Reagan."

Then there's a signed photo of Nixon dated May 26, 1988.

"Your op-ed piece in the Times today was right on target," Nixon wrote. "I hope the Bush campaign people read it and follow your advice. The strategy needed now is not to get people to vote for Bush but against Dukakis."

And that's Stone's philosophy: Always attack. One can't help but wonder what Israel is in store for if Stone is let out of his lair again as Election Day in Broward County nears.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman