Web Site Retracts Harris Death Story

Posted July 8, 2003 at 6:47pm

Freshman Rep. Katherine Harris had a fleeting Mark Twain moment this week thanks to the authors of a conspiracy minded Web site that reported the Florida Republican had perished in a small plane crash Monday morning.

The Web site, www.tomflocco.com, posted a report at 11:55 p.m. Monday that carried the bold headline: “Florida Rep. Katherine Harris Dead in Plane Crash.” The story, based on partially factual information from one unidentified source, claimed Harris was aboard a small plane en route from the Chicago area that crashed in foggy conditions around 10 a.m. as it approached Toronto’s Island Airport. The report also alleged that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) was at the accident scene shortly after the crash. Bush was in Toronto on Monday promoting Florida tourism and travel.

Like Twain — who famously wrote “the reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated” upon hearing that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal — Harris’ office appeared to be taking the incident in stride Tuesday as it fielded a slew of worldwide media inquiries about the health and whereabouts of the Congresswoman.

“She’s at work today and she’s fine,” Harris spokesman David Host said. “It’s totally and completely false.”

Host said the office had no idea where the information originated and added that his boss had not been in Chicago or anywhere near Canada in recent days.

“Sure, we’ve gotten calls, but as far as I can tell nobody’s been picking it up once they talk to us and realize that there’s nothing to it,” Host said. “It certainly is one of those things where you just try to help people understand what the facts are.”

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the pilot of a small plane that crashed in Lake Ontario on Monday has been identified as prominent Chicago lawyer Jon Gregg, who was believed to be alone in the plane. The Beechcraft Baron aircraft was approaching the Toronto’s Island Airport, just off-shore from the city’s downtown, and disappeared from radar just two minutes before landing.

Harris’ office wasn’t the only one fielding questions about the story. John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said he began getting press calls inquiring about Harris early Tuesday morning.

“Don’t believe everything you read on the Web,” Feehery cautioned.

The incident also produced some light- hearted banter between the freshman Congresswoman and some of her colleagues as they returned from the July Fourth recess yesterday.

“If she’s dead, she’s quite a Lazarus,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who verified that he had seen Harris and joked with her about the report on Tuesday.

By mid-Tuesday morning the story had been removed from the Web site and later in the afternoon a retraction was posted.

The statement, which was linked to a copy of the original story, read: “Late last night we reported that Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) had died in a plane crash off the coast of Toronto, Canada. We were misinformed on this matter, as an unidentified staffer in Harris’ office told us this morning that the Florida legislator was in her office. However, we still stand on the fact that we both talked to an individual in Harris’ office at 10:30 pm and midnight Eastern Time yesterday requesting the individual to confirm or deny the story before publishing Monday on the day of the plane crash in Toronto.”

The original story describes two late-night conversations between Tom Flocco and Michael Thomas, the authors of the report, and an unidentified woman in Harris’ office who answered the phone when both called seeking confirmation of the plane crash.

During the first conversation, which took place around 10:30 p.m., the woman said “no comment” when asked if she could confirm or deny that Harris was involved in a plane crash.

“We’re busy. Goodbye,” the conversation ended, according to the report. A second call placed to the office around midnight was answered by the same person who gave a similar response, adding, “I don’t have the authority to answer that question.”

Attempts to reach Flocco for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Host said he had no details about the telephone conversations and, because he was not present in the office at the time, could not confirm whether or not they took place.

The story also theorizes about how Harris, then Florida’s secretary of state, was able to scrub voters from voting lists before the 2000 presidential election. The photo caption that ran with the tomflocco.com story also noted that “with her death many of the secrets involving the 2000 presidential election voting controversies … will be lost forever.”

The Web site published by Flocco carries the logo “For Honest Government In Our Lifetime” and contains a number of documents and writings related to Sept. 11, 2001, that espouse a variety of conspiracy theories.

The bio posted on his Web site describes Flocco as an independent investigative journalist, who has written for online publications such as Scoop.co.nz, WorldNetDaily.com, NewsMax.com and Narco-News.com.

According to his bio, Flocco has also done past investigative work for Larry Klayman, founder and chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group.

“Poor Katherine Harris,” quipped one GOP aide. “She’s been on the business end of more conspiracy theories than Elvis, Tom DeLay and Mikey from Life cereal combined.”