Fla. Editorials Gang Up on Attorney General's Support of 'Rentboy Rekers'

The Edge, Boston/May 15, 2010

Three years ago, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum recommended the hiring of George Rekers as an expert witness in a court case that challenged Florida's ban on gay adoption. Now McCollum--who has become a gubernatorial candidate--faces blowback in the wake of Rekers' "rent boy" scandal, stemming from Rekers having hired a male escort from RentBoy.com as a travel companion on a European trip.

Among calls for a refund of the $120,000 in taxpayer money that went to Rekers for his "expert testimony" in 2007 and 2008, newspaper editorials are openly questioning McCollum's judgment for the hiring of Rekers--and accusing the candidate of knowing full well that Rekers' testimony relied on debunked and discredited junk science. Moreover, Rekers' testimony contained more than a grain of pure bias--and not just against gays; Rekers' testimony included a statement that Native Americans would not make suitable adoptive parents, either.

McCollum defended his recommendation by saying that his office had mounted a "thorough search" and that Rekers was the best they could find because, McCollum said, "there wasn't a whole lot of choice.''

"There was not a whole lot of choice because legitimate mental health professionals don't share Rekers' homophobic views, and Florida is the only state that bans adoptions by gay residents," scoffed Florida newspaper the St. Petersburg Times in a May 14 editorial. "McCollum's search also was not very thorough."

The editorial drew an unflattering comparison between McCollum and Rekers, noting that, "Attorney General Bill McCollum and George Rekers have this in common: They were both happy to hire sleazy services, and they knew what they were getting for the money. Now both are having trouble explaining themselves."

Rekers had told the press that he had hired 20-year-old Jo-vanni Roman to act as a luggage porter because Rekers was unable to hoist his own luggage following surgery. Rekers also claimed that the European trip was well underway before he learned that his travel companion was a male escort--despite having hired Roman through RentBoy.com, an online clearinghouse for escort services.

Rekers, who co-founded anti-gay group Family Research Council and was until recently a board member of "ex-gay" group NARTH, threatened to sue over media suggestions that he is closeted. But Roman told the press that he was not lifting luggage for Rekers; rather, the young escort said, his daily duties included giving Rekers erotic massage.

The $120,000 tab that Florida paid out to Rekers is even more of an embarrassment given that that the judge in the case, Cindy Lederman, ruled against the state, calling the ban on adoption by gay and lesbian prospective parents unconstitutional. Moreover, Rekers' testimony came in for specific citation in Lederman's ruling, noted a May 13 op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel. "In her ruling, Ms. Lederman wrote that Mr. Rekers' testimony was neither 'credible nor worthy of forming the basis for public policy,' " the op-ed recollected. The Sentinel also took aim at McCollum's claim that "There wasn't a whole lot of choice" when it came to deciding whom to hire as a witness hostile to gay and lesbian families. Declared the Sentinel, "The dearth of credible experts to defend the ban should have told the attorney general something. Reputable studies have shown parents' quality, not their sexual orientation, is what counts."

Judge Lederman was not the first jurist to dismiss Rekers' testimony as pseudoscience with no credible bearing on the case, noted the Miami Herald on May 12. Three years before he was recruited to testify in Florida, Rekers testified in a similar case in Arkansas--and his side lost. Judge Timothy Fox called Rekers' testimony "pointless." Despite Judge Fox's dismissal of Rekers' testimony, McCollum wrote to the then-head of the state's Department of Children and Families, Bob Butterworth, to lobby for Rekers, telling Butterworth that, "Our attorneys handling this case have searched long and hard for other expert witnesses with comparable expertise to Dr. Rekers and have been unable to identify any who would be available for this case."

Laying Blame

The Herald Tribune reported in a May 12 article that McCollum sold Butterworth on Rekers by telling him about Rekers' credentials and to saying that the lawyers for the state "believe that this expert and his testimony are necessary to ensure a successful result in this case."

But a number of media sources noted that in the wake of the Rekers scandal, McCollum had also claimed that the hiring of Rekers hadn't actually been his idea--but rather was the work of the state's Department of Children and Families. That department fought back, reported Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell, producing a memo that refuted the blame claim, documenting how "McCollum personally pleaded to pay Rekers $60,000." Added Maxwell, "At $300-an-hour, the fee later doubled. Quite the fiscal watchdog, our Bill."

Columnist Frank Cerabino, in a May 10 article for Florida newspaper The Palm Beach Post, tutted McCollum for his big-spending ways, addressing the attorney general in an open letter that read, "As a taxpayer, I hate to see the state squander its money on frivolous lawsuits, but I am also keenly aware that as a candidate for governor you need to do some political grandstanding by waging message-oriented legal battles with state money. So how about a compromise? Let's eliminate the middlemen." Added the column, "Quit farming out the work to guys in suits. From now on, just send the money directly to the male prostitutes. At least taxpayers can be assured that the guys at the website rentboy.com are working hard for the money."

Even as columnists were venting their spleen, readers were filling the letters to the editor pages with vitriol and disbelief. One lawyer wrote in to the Miami Herald in a letter published May 13, to decry the use of paid expert witnesses, saying that the scandal "speaks volumes about the abusive practices of trial lawyers in using expert witnesses as a means of getting their opinions before a judge or jury in the form of evidence rather than argument."

Another reader wrote in to say, "Shame on McCollum for wasting our money on his phony 'expert.' And shame on Rekers for the phony life he's living."

Rekers has said that he counseled the young man, but did not engage in sexual activity with him. Statements reportedly made by Jo-vanni Roman indicated that the young escort did not fully agree with Rekers' version of events. The Miami New Times reported on May 6 that, according to Roman, the escort provided massage services that included a technique referred to as the "long stroke." Roman reportedly explained this to the Miami New Times as a move that involved contact "across his penis, thigh... and his anus over the butt cheeks." Added Roman, "Rekers liked to be rubbed down there."

The article said that Roman denied having been hired to haul Rekers' luggage. Added the young escort, "It's a situation where he's going against homosexuality when he is a homosexual.... In all honesty, he should disassociate himself from these [anti-gay] groups."

A May 6 follow-up article at Miami New Times reported on a phone conversation between Roman and Rekers that took place on speaker phone with reporters from the publication present. The article said that the conversation took place at around 1:00 a.m. on May 6 at a private residence, and that Rekers did not know anyone other than Roman was present for the conversation. Rekers encouraged the young escort to avoid talking to the press.

"Tell them you don't want to do interviews," Rekers advised.

Roman made reference to the intimate contact the two had had together, saying, "We did the whole massage thing, and I don't know what to think about it."

"Yeah--just say 'No,' and just say, 'I've already [indecipherable] to the press,' and that's it," Rekers advised. " 'Cuz if you keep answering, it'll keep the story alive."

Rekers downplayed the impact he has had, socially and legally, on gay and lesbian individuals and their families, telling Roman that he had "stay[ed] in the background" as the Family Research Council went about the business of trying to deny legal parity to GLBTs. "I never picked a fight with [gays]," he told the young escort.

Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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