As reported below, Freda Stevens' District 100 State House campaign has filed a criminal complaint against state Rep. Evan Jenne, claiming that Jenne, through veteran political operative Barry Harris, promised to help finance her campaign if she didn't run against him.
Jenne vehemently denies the allegation, and it is undoubtedly a murky case that doesn't prove anything against him. But it just as surely reveals a part of the underbelly of the Democratic Party in Broward County and the way big money -- or promises of it -- can alter the political landscape.
The central figure in the case isn't really Jenne, in fact. It's Harris, the operative whom both Stevens and Jenne both say was deeply involved.
Who is Barry Harris? For one, he's been a behind-the-scenes Democratic operative for many years. Back in 1980, when he was 28 years old, he was sentenced to probation after being charged with felonies for buying property with bad checks (he says he's not officially a felon because adjudication was withheld). He has served as an area leader for the local Democratic Party and is tight with Broward Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar. He's worked for numerous local and state campaigns, and in a 2005 Orlando Sentinel article, his occupation was listed as "Wal-Mart cashier." He runs a political consulting company called Sunshine Political Connection.
Harris describes himself as a passionate believer in Democratic values who only wants the best for the party. He says he made amends for his crime and would never do anything like it again. And Harris says that everything he did in the Stevens-Jenne matter he did only for his longtime friendship with Evan Jenne.
"I was doing what I did as a friend," he said.
Did Jenne ask him to act on his behalf?
"No, he didn't," Harris answered.
Stevens says she first met Harris in June at a Democratic Executive Committee meeting. At the time, she was trying to decide whether to again run against Jenne, who had vanquished her at the polls in 2008, or to run in District 91, a House seat being vacated by Ellyn Bogdanoff. She said she had told state Rep. Ron Saunders, of the Keys, about her dilemma a week before.
When Harris approached her at the meeting, she says she didn't know what to think.
"Barry is sort of like a wad of gum on the wall: You see it, but you don't want to
look at it," Stevens told me today. "He's sort of like the person in a movie that if a mobster goes and kills somebody, he's the guy who will clean out the car. He does the dirty work for people."
Stevens says that Harris told her he would support her campaign so long as she didn't run against Jenne, a fellow Democrat. Then he suggested she run for Bogdanoff's seat. Stevens said she thought it was "weird" that he made this suggestion after she had already told Saunders about her idea to possibly run in District 91.
"He said he would love to support me, but he has known [Jenne's father, Ken Jenne, the former Broward sheriff] for 30 years, that he knew his mom, and he knew Evan since before he had hair, things like that," says Stevens.
She said that Harris told her that if she ran in District 91, he would bring in big-money interests to support her. Among them, she claims, was the law firm of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, which employed Ken Jenne after he was released from prison following a felony fraud conviction. Evan Jenne also has an employment tie to the firm, working as a consultant for a health-care company called Edify that is co-owned by RRA's president, Scott Rothstein.
"He also told me he would get Austin Forman to back me up," she says. "I didn't even know who Austin Forman was at that time."
Harris admits that he told Stevens he would try to raise money for her if she didn't run against his friend Jenne. He also conceded he contacted Forman on her behalf but said he never mentioned or contacted the Rothstein law firm. "I said I would try to raise funds for her," Harris says. "I made some calls for her, but because she is a quote-unquote 'pro-life Democrat,' it was very hard to raise funds for her."
Stevens says Harris told her that the people backing Evan Jenne had a grand plan for him and that it didn't include fighting for his seat in 2010.
"Barry said that the people backing Evan wanted Evan in leadership and wanted him in the position of House Minority Leader by 2012," Stevens says. "They were going to fight for a Democratic majority and if that happened they would make Evan the speaker and he would go to Congress from there. And they wanted him unopposed so he could recruit for open seats."
Jenne says there is no truth to any of that. "I was on the leadership team in my first term, and I have no interest in being the Democratic leader," he told me this morning. "I like my position being floor leader."
Stevens announced that she was going to run for District 91 on June 30. Everyone involved agrees that Harris set up a lunch meeting between Stevens and Jenne a week later, on July 7 at a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant in Davie. Stevens says both Jenne and Harris showed up eager to help her campaign.
"I was 20 minutes late because I really didn't want to go," she says. "My family was screaming in my ear, 'Don't go.' But I went ahead and went. Evan was there with bells on. He said he was going to get me an appointment with RRA [Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler]. He was going to make an appointment for me with Austin Forman. Barry told me he could raise me $5,000."
Three weeks later, at Stevens' July 31 campaign kickoff at the Melting Pot in Fort Lauderdale, it was Jenne who introduced Stevens as the "next state representative for District 91," according to Stevens' blog, which includes a photo of Jenne and Stevens mugging happily for the camera. Here's how Stevens quotes Jenne on her blog:
As many of you know, Freda and I were opponents last year. I was happy when we were able to sit down over lunch and talk about our futures in the Democratic Party. After lunch, she sent me a special note with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: 'Power is the only thing capable of turning an enemy into friend!' So, with that said, I am happy to introduce to you, your next state representative for District 91 -- Mrs. Freda Stevens!
Interesting MLK quote to say the least. One thing is clear: The two of them were arm-in-arm at the event. Obviously things soured a great deal after that, perhaps due to fundraising promises unkept. Stevens wouldn't discuss many details of the criminal complaint, which was filed by her campaign manager, Josh Brown.
Proving any wrongdoing by Jenne seems unlikely, especially since Harris says he was acting on his own. "Why would I bother getting her out of the race?" says Jenne. "I beat her by 35 points in a three-way race. She registered 15 to 17 points overall. I had no reason to want her out of the race."
Perhaps, but politicians never welcome opposition either. After Stevens left Jenne's district, another Democratic challenger, Chris Chiari, moved in. That too has been a very contentious race so far.
And as long as the Barry Harrises of the world are in action, you can bet there will be more intrigue to come.