If you repeat a rumor enough times, people assume it's true. That's what's happening now, with allegations of voter intimidation surrounding the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's investigation into the Orlando mayoral election.

The March election, you'll recall, was marred by allegations that Ezzie Thomas – a consultant whom Buddy Dyer paid $10,000 – manipulated the absentee ballots of old, black voters. Dyer's challenger, Ken Mulvaney, challenged the election results, saying that Thomas' alleged chicanery boosted Dyer to victory.

The FDLE opened an investigation to see if Thomas illegally pressured absentee voters to vote for Dyer, and if he violated a city ordinance limiting the number of absentee ballots one person can pick up and deliver. Later, the FDLE added to its investigation charges that firefighters illegally campaigned for Dyer on the taxpayers' dime. Those allegations are currently before a grand jury. Mulvaney has filed a lawsuit to have the election overturned.

Thomas' attorney, Joe Egan, who also represents the firefighters' union, says Thomas is innocent, and the charges are politically motivated. For months, he's pitched the claim to local reporters – Slug included – that this is a GOP scheme to disenfranchise blacks.

On July 25, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story citing black voters who claimed to be intimidated by FDLE agents, alongside Thomas' claim that the FDLE – which reports to Gov. Jeb Bush – was going door-to-door in black precincts to pressure voters into staying home. The Sentinel's editorial board opined that the FDLE should be more sensitive, but the inquiry should continue. And that was that.

Enter Bob Herbert, urban affairs op-ed man for The New York Times. In his Aug. 16 column, "Suppress the Vote," Herbert wrote, "State police officers have gone into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando and interrogated them as part of an odd 'investigation' that has frightened many voters, intimidated elderly volunteers and thrown a chill over efforts to get out the black vote in November."

Herbert then compared the investigation to pre-civil rights days, when whites would do anything to keep blacks from the polls.

The next day, Herbert's Times colleague, Paul Krugman, repeated the insinuation. "`T`he state has provided little information about the investigation, and, as Mr. Herbert says, this looks remarkably like an attempt to intimidate voters."

And then liberals everywhere went crazy. The story quickly made its way to National Public Radio and to talk network Air America. People for the American Way repeated Herbert's allegations in a fund-raising e-mail. On Aug. 16, Rep. Corrine Brown declared her anger in a press release: "I am outraged to hear that Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers are intimidating elderly members of Orlando's black community. ... If they are going to investigate anything, they should be examining the Florida governor's office `rather` than intimidating elderly people who are merely trying to express their right to vote."

On Aug. 19, Brown and five other black House Democrats demanded that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the FDLE for civil-rights violations, which generated a new round of press. The juggernaut rolled on.

The next day, Aug. 20, Herbert followed up his original piece, declaring, "The smell of voter suppression coming out of Florida is getting stronger." He mentioned a May 13 letter the FDLE sent to Dyer saying "that there was no basis to support the allegations ... ."

And then, on Aug. 23, he made this proposition: "Why go forward (with the investigation) anyway? Well, consider that the prolonged investigation dovetails exquisitely with that crucial but unspoken mission of the GOP in Florida: to keep black voter turnout as low as possible."

It's a fantastic story: Armed GOP Gestapo canvassing black neighborhoods to make sure Dubya gets re-elected. Too bad it's all bullshit.

The FDLE made it clear that the May 13 letter Herbert refers to only spoke to Dyer's involvement, not to the bigger issues of ballot fraud or illegal campaigning. Local press accounts made that clear. Apparently, Herbert never bothered to read them.

FDLE officers are in fact "interrogating" poor, elderly blacks, because those are the exact same people whose votes Thomas allegedly mishandled. Should the FDLE be knocking on doors in Windermere to investigate vote fraud in black neighborhoods? Probably not.

Yes, FDLE agents carry handguns – they're cops. Yes, the agents could have covered them with suit jackets, but who wears a suit jacket outside in a Florida summer?

Of course the FDLE isn't talking about the ongoing investigation; that's against the law.

The FDLE, according to commissioner Guy Tunnell, offered to share tape recordings of the interviews with Herbert when the case was closed, but Herbert said he wasn't interested. (Herbert also wasn't interested in repeated interview requests for this column.)

Is this really part of an effort to disenfranchise the black vote? No. Call Mulvaney – whose allegations kick-started the investigation – a sore loser, but as anyone who followed the campaign knows, he's hardly a GOP tool.

Then there's the fact that the allegations were initially referred to the FDLE by Orange-Osceola state attorney Lawson Lamar – a Democrat – whose office recently impaneled a grand jury to weigh the FDLE's evidence.

There may well be an effort in Florida to disenfranchise black voters, but this isn't part of it. There are faulty electronic voting machines that don't generate paper trails. There is a deeply flawed felon purge list that the state refused to reveal until forced, and only then did it come to light that – lo and behold – there was nary a Hispanic name on it. Blacks in this state lean Democrat, Hispanics lean Republican. The state scrapped the list.

Few would accuse this paper of pro-Bush leanings, but we have to say it: In this case the facts aren't as sexy as a story starring Florida as a backwoods swamp where the Bush boys send armed thugs to intimidate black voters. It may play in New York, but it's not true.

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