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Bill Nelson slapped with ethics complaint amid charges of fabricating Russian hacking claim

August 23, 2018

A conservative group filed a complaint Thursday with the Senate Ethics Committee, alleging Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson broke the law this month when claiming Russian operatives had penetrated Florida’s election apparatus.

Florida officials have insisted they are aware of no such cyber strike by foreign actors, and last week the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI said they had no evidence that such an attack has occurred. Mr. Nelson made the remarks while speaking with reporters in Tallahassee on Aug. 7 shortly before early voting began in Florida, saying he had been told Russian agents had already “penetrated” the Sunshine State’s electoral equipment and now had “free rein to move about.”

“The Senate Select Committee on Ethics should investigate Senator Nelson to determine whether he disclosed classified information or made false statements with the inherent authority of the Senate for political purposes,” wrote Kendra Arnold, the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. “In either instance, Nelson committed a serious violation and must be held accountable.”

The letter was addressed to the Ethics Committee Chairman, Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, and the committee’s Co-Chair, Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons.

FACT’s accusations closely track those made by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is seeking to unseat Mr. Nelson. Mr. Scott and his campaign have repeatedly charged that Mr. Nelson was either cavalier with classified information held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, or simply lied in an effort to capitalize on the narrative surrounding Russian meddling in the nation’s 2016 elections.

Mr. Nelson’s campaign had no immediate comment on the complaint.

Since he leveled the explosive charge, Mr. Nelson has made some effort to distance himself from the specifics. At a private meeting with supporters that was videotaped, he said he was speaking more generally and that it was reasonable to think the Russians would meddle given their track record.

FACT is a conservative nonprofit that has filed charges against Democratic candidates in the past. Two years ago, for instance, the group accused Democrat Ted Strickland of illegally coordinating with Super PACs in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

In response to the complaint, Republican Party officials noted former NSA translator Reality Winter was sentenced to 5 years in prison Thursday for leaking classified information to the press.

Mr. Scott’s campaign released a video Thursday afternoon titled “Confused” that takes Mr. Nelson to task for his thus far unsubstantiated claims and “constantly changing, incoherent explanation.” With the video, campaign spokesman Chris Hartline released a statement in which he urged the Ethics Committee to take the complaint seriously given voting has already begun in Florida.

“It’s been more than two weeks since Bill Nelson’s bizarre Russia comments, and the only people more confused than Bill Nelson are the people who have to listen to him speak,” Mr. Hartline said. “With nearly 1.5 million ballots already cast for the primary next week, Nelson’s attempt to undermine the voters’ confidence in Florida’s elections systems is irresponsible and reckless and it’s long past time that he provide a full explanation for his confusing claims.”

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