Floridians were shocked last week when police announced that the spokesman for the state's Department of Children and Families had been arrested and charged with peddling child pornography. But buried in news accounts of the case was a curious detail: the official in question had listed the state's current Republican Governor, Charlie Crist, as a reference when he applied for his post in 2005.
Gov. Crist returned to the news as the nation awaited the outcome of the Republican presidential primary in Florida. The Sunshine State's governor's endorsement of Sen. John McCain late in the campaign may have helped push McCain across the finish line to take the state's 57 delegates. Crist's endorsement also contributed to ending the campaign of Rudy Giuliani, who had heavily courted the governor's thumbs up.
Just after the Florida electoral contest, Tampa Bay police announced the arrest of Al Zimmerman, the spokesman for the state's Department of Children and Families. Zimmerman, a former TV reporter, was charged with 8 child pornography counts after taking photos of two underage boys performing sexual acts. Some evidence indicates that he may have met one of the boys on the job, and that he may have had additional victims. He could face up to 120 years in jail.
While the news prompted state officials to say they were reviewing the personnel files of state employees for red flags, Zimmerman appeared to have come highly recommended when he was appointed to his post in 2005. Among the five references he listed, one of them was Crist, then the state Attorney General under Gov. Jeb Bush.
Crist's office has implied that the governor had little direct connection to Zimmerman, and that the listing of top state officials as references was a routine matter.
An AP report noted that the governor, "does not recall authorizing a recommendation for Zimmerman, but added that he often is asked to give them, spokeswoman Erin Isaac said Sunday."
But according to some earlier accounts, Crist was directly aware of Zimmerman and his work as on-air talent for a Tampa-area TV station.
"A spokeswoman for the governor said Crist knew Zimmerman through his reporting job in Tampa Bay but does not remember being asked to be one of his references," according to a Sunday report in the Palm Beach Post.
Regardless of how well Zimmerman and Crist knew one another, state officials made it clear that Crist was never formally contacted prior to the spokesman's hiring in 2005.
Prior to his appointment as a spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, Zimmerman appears to have had a colorful past. News reports indicated that he faced an outstanding warrant in Texas for theft. Additionally, he was arrested on DUI charges in Georgia in the 1990s. In 2003, he was arrested for passing a bad check in Florida, but the case was dropped.
As a reporter, Zimmerman also made waves. According to the Tampa Tribune, a report that Zimmerman completed called "Perverts in the Park" provoked controversy when it aired in Texas in 1996. The TV report focused on a public restroom in a park in San Antonio where gay men met for trysts. And when the news item was broadcast, Zimmerman forgot to digitally blur explicit sexual images recorded with a hidden camera.
It also appears that Zimmerman may have contemplated a career in online pornography as far back as the 1990s. News reports indicate that he and his brother bought the URL, "boxersorbriefs.com," but never began using it.
While Zimmerman appears to have engaged in illicit activity online, he also created a public trail that might have exposed him to controversy had it been uncovered prior to the his arrest. On his MySpace profile, Zimmerman describes himself as not only a "Government Employee," but also as a "Swinger." He remarks that he's looking for "Someone who hates to cuddle afterwards," as well as, "a friend that likes to pay for everything."
The profile furthermore lists Zimmerman as straight, but a friend joked in his comments section that he was gay, prompting another friend to remark, "if we all stopped commenting on everyone's sexual persuasion, maybe the press wouldn't have anything to report."
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