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Fla. Attorney General in Spotlight

November 14, 2000

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who helped smoke out the nation’s tobacco companies a few years ago, doesn’t want a cloud over the final Florida vote count in the presidential election.

Butterworth got in the middle of things Tuesday. Shortly after the state’s chief elections supervisor told Palm Beach County officials they could not finish a hand recount of last Tuesday’s vote, Butterworth issued an advisory opinion saying the county has a right to finish it.

``The division’s opinion is wrong in several respects,″ said Butterworth, a Democrat who doubled this year as Vice President Al Gore’s campaign chairman in Florida.

Butterworth and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush share a collegial relationship, but there is no doubt that he wants Gore to beat the governor’s older brother, George W. Bush, in the presidential fight.

``He’s aggressive,″ said former Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade, noting the attorney general’s intensity increases around election time.

But Butterworth isn’t afraid to fight within his own party either, leading a move two years ago to fire fellow Broward Democrat Mitch Ceasar from his post as state party chairman.

``We need a person who with every waking breath ... can be thinking, ’how can I make the Democratic Party better,‴ Butterworth said.

No stranger to controversy or tragedy, Butterworth long has been seen as a bright Democratic star in a party in decline in the Sunshine State over the past decade. He’s one of the party’s 25 electors this year.

A former judge and Broward County sheriff, Butterworth, 58, has never lost an election, easily winning in four tries as the state’s top legal officer _ twice without opposition.

He’s credited with shaping up the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles after taking over a demoralized agency in disarray in the early 1980s.

A native of Passaic, N.J., Butterworth was particularly invincible in his 1998 re-election effort after playing a key role with former Gov. Lawton Chiles in helping Florida secure a $13 billion settlement with tobacco companies.

Butterworth and Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne were dubbed ``Batman″ and ``Robin″ in the early 1970s when the two young prosecutors were ferreting out corruption in the Broward Courthouse.

A law-and-order Democrat, Butterworth was criticized for his comments after a 1997 botched execution when flames shot from the head of convicted murderer Pedro Medina as he sat in the electric chair.

``People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in Florida,″ he said. ``Because we may have a problem with our electric chair.″

Butterworth has experienced other conflicts during his long public career.

To avoid a conflict of interest, Butterworth asked federal authorities to investigate possible Medicaid billing problems by a private health care company at a county jail because his wife, Marta Prado, was a top officer in the company. Fifteen inmates died in a two-year period, some under questionable circumstances. The company, EMSA Correctional Care, had its contract renewed in 1997 without a competitive bid.

Butterworth’s office also was investigated by the Legislature after a key staffer used public equipment during work hours to coordinate two fund-raisers for President Clinton in 1996 _ one at Butterworth’s Hollywood home and the other at his Fort Lauderdale office building.

A personal tragedy also has left lasting scars, leaving him reluctant to run for the more high-profile jobs of governor or U.S. senator.

In 1986, on the eve of his election as attorney general, Butterworth’s ex-wife, Saundra, fatally shot their 16-year-old son, Robert A. Butterworth III, and then killed herself on a northeast Miami street. Police said she was mentally ill and had used a gun Butterworth had given her for protection before their divorce in 1976. The tragedy came only hours after the younger Butterworth handed out ``Bob Butterworth″ buttons left over from his dad’s campaign in his own bid to become president of his high school class.

Butterworth has a son and daughter with his second wife.

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