WASHINGTON (AP) – Among the many thousands of emails Jeb Bush received as Florida governor are a string of notes from campaign donors asking favors and making suggestions.
Invariably, Bush responded quickly. Sometimes, he appointed a person a donor had recommended for a position. Other times, he rejected advice about a piece of legislation.
It’s an insight into Bush’s work as governor that’s possible only because his emails are open for review, something not yet available for those sent and received by Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Like Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bush used a personal email address and private server. But, positioning himself as a transparent candidate if he runs for the Republican nomination, he has posted online more than 275,000 emails from his two terms in office.
Initially, the emails that drew attention concerned Bush’s correspondence about continuing or removing life support for Terri Schiavo, the federal raid to resolve the Elian Gonzalez custody battle and Florida’s pivotal role in the 2000 presidential election.
Yet a review by The Associated Press of Jeb Bush’s emails found that prominent donors to Bush and his family regularly urged him to appoint candidates for judgeships, public boards and other positions. One suggested Bush appoint a political supporter’s step-daughter to a hospital board and asked the governor to support funding for his alma mater.
One Palm Beach County fundraiser told Bush, the best man at his wedding, that companies hired him “because of my association with the administration and you.”
Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said it was not uncommon for the public to make such suggestions to Bush and that recommendations were routed “through appropriate channels.”
Did fundraisers carry special influence? “No. Absolutely not,” Campbell said. She did not respond to AP’s questions about specific emails involving two fundraisers, but one of them, Mark Guzzetta, said Bush denied his requests just as frequently as he granted them.
“We always joked it would be better to be a stranger with no connection,” Guzzetta said. “He was so deliberate because he wanted to make sure we received no special favors.”
Bush freely gave out his personal email address during his time in office and often received notes of inquiry, complaint and thanks. Last month, Bush put the emails he said were related to his work in state government on a website, a move he and his aides said was designed to show his administration was open and in touch with constituents.
Bush was required by Florida’s notably strong public records law to provide the state with all correspondence related to state government after he left office, and those emails were publicly available before Bush created his website.
Like Clinton, Bush decided which messages were considered personal and not subject to disclosure. In 2007, he said he had received and sent about 550,000 emails via his personal address, meaning a significant number remain private.
Among those to email him was a longtime Bush family supporter, William “Bill” Becker, a Florida citrus grower. He was among the circle of loyalists invited to huddle with Bush in December to hear about his presidential ambitions.
Nine years ago, Becker wrote as the citrus industry dealt with advertising budget shortfalls triggered by Hurricane Wilma.
“It seems whenever I am in touch with you it is for a favor and I hate to have to do so again,” he wrote, asking the governor to support a funding supplement.
“A good word from you to the leadership would very likely salvage the matter and be of huge help to the industry,” Becker wrote that day, April 29, 2006.
Bush wrote back the same day. “We made the pitch to the speaker, president and appropriations chairs. We shall see.”
Earlier that month, Becker wrote Bush asking the governor to call about a citrus industry initiative. “Calling right now,” Bush replied that day, April 3, 2006.
Becker, who did not respond to three interview requests from AP, chaired the “Ag for Bush Coalition” in 2004, supporting the presidential re-election campaign of Bush’s brother, George W. Bush. Two years earlier, Jeb Bush flew aboard Becker’s Cessna while campaigning for governor. Becker is a steady supporter of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by Bush in 2008, giving between $25,001 and $50,000 each year from 2012-14.
When Becker was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 2011, a clip outlining his industry career included photos of him standing with George W. Bush and hosting a fundraiser for Jeb Bush.
In 2002, Becker urged Bush to fill an open slot on the Florida Citrus Commission – which Becker once chaired – with a candidate who had twice failed to make the cut.
“She and her family have been loyal supporters,” Becker wrote. “You met her at the Governor’s Mansion on one occasion and I believe you may have met her at the Florida House event at our home. I believe she is immensely well qualified to serve on the Florida Citrus Commission.”
Nine days later, after Bush made the appointment, Becker wrote back: “Many thanks for an expedited and wonderful appointment.”
Becker also wrote urging the governor to back funding for his alma mater, Florida Southern College, and suggested that Bush appoint candidates to the Indian River Hospital Board on Florida’s east coast.
One candidate was the step-daughter of a fellow citrus industry official, who, Becker told the governor, “has been a loyal supporter whenever I have called on your behalf. He has never failed to respond to the maximum extent possible. To my knowledge, he has never, until now, asked for anything but good government in return.”
Bush told Becker he would look into the matter. But by then, another candidate had been recommended and the appointment was due. Becker’s favorite did join the board, but her tenure began after Bush’s term.
Another financial backer who sought to sway Bush was Guzzetta, a Boca Raton real estate developer who was finance co-chairman of Bush’s gubernatorial campaign. Bush was best man at Guzzetta’s wedding, and in 1997, before he became governor, he brokered the $46 million sale of a vacant IBM office park in Boca Raton to Blue Lake Ltd., whose partners included Guzzetta.
In email messages, Guzzetta urged Bush to make appointments for judgeships, a property insurance commission and the Florida Transportation Commission, among other slots. He also introduced out-of-town business people to Bush and urged the governor to approve or deny specific bills.
In 2001, as Bush was poised to fill a vacant judgeship in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Guzzetta opined about the three candidates. All were Democrats, but one, he noted, “is the wife of a personal friend and good Republican … (maybe we’ll get her to convert to a Republican.)”
A month later, Bush chose her. But Guzzetta said his friendship with Bush “probably hurt me more than helped me.”
“Clearly could I have picked up the phone? Yes,” he said. “Would that have helped with the other stuff? No.”
Bush supported some bills Guzzetta lobbied for but, in at least one case, vetoed another.
In addition, Guzzetta had pressed Bush to help settle a long-simmering lawsuit over a stalled development project in an environmentally sensitive tract of land in Indian River County. Guzzetta said he was not personally involved in the Lost Tree Islands development of upscale homes and golf course, but got involved at a friend’s request.
“Really, it was Jeb standing in the way of it,” he said.
In May 2000, Guzzetta wrote Bush expressing frustration. “When companies or individuals come to me these days for the purpose of hiring me, it’s not because of my wonderful relationship with the president of the Senate or with the Speaker of the House – it’s because of my association with the administration and you,” he wrote.
“When you shut me down and shut me out it’s frustrating – but not only frustrating, worse than that – it’s very frightening. Frightening because I rely upon this income to support my family,” he wrote.
Guzzetta told the AP he was “referring to the perception, not the reality” that he had special access to Bush.
Bush’s email files do not show a reply from the governor, and Guzzetta said that Bush failed to help resolve the dispute and stepped away from the issue. But in 2003, the matter did settle, when the city of Vero Beach, town of Indian River Shores and Indian River County bought the property from developers for $15.1 million. When the deal closed, a project developer thanked Bush, who, in turn, lauded project backers for resolving the dispute. A state agency, the Florida Communities Trust, provided a grant to help close the purchase.
“The owners of Lost Tree agreed to sell their property for substantially less than the appraised value,” Chuck Bayer, president of Lost Tree Village Corporation, wrote Bush in February 2003. “I also want to personally thank you for listening to our cause and our plight as we battled the various groups hoping to ‘take’ our property. This was a good ending for all and was achieved partially due to your and to the State’s help.”
In 2004, Guzzetta said he was seeking to become a national committeeman for the Republican National Committee. He turned to Bush, who affectionately referred to him as “Markus” at times.
“By the way, thanks for listening last night to all the issues,” Guzzetta wrote Bush on Nov. 18, 2004. “I really need you to go to bat for me re. the appointment and request that you keep it high on the list, without your help I would not know where to begin.”
Guzzetta said his pursuit of the national slot “went nowhere,” and he turned his attention to another Florida real estate project.
Another member of the inner circle gathered in December was Jim Blosser, a retired Fort Lauderdale lobbyist. Blosser was a fundraising “pioneer” in George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, and served as Broward Finance Chairman for Jeb Bush’s runs for governor.
Blosser urged Bush to make appointments, ranging from a college board of trustees to a local school board. In an interview, Blosser said citizens have a duty to point the governor to worthy candidates. Should Bush rise to the White House, he said, he would do so again.
“I don’t do that lightly,” Blosser said. “I am not ashamed of that. I am not embarrassed by that.”