MANATEE — State Sen. Mike Bennett issued an apology Friday for opening an e-mail during a debate on the Senate floor that blew up into an Internet embarrassment.
Bennett was caught on video viewing a picture of four young women in bikinis last week while his fellow senators were debating a bill dealing with abortion.
“Although this situation was not something I knowingly caused, I deeply regret and apologize for any embarrassment I have caused my wife, my family and friends and for any discredit and/or embarrassment I have bought to my fellow senators, the Florida Legislature and the citizens of Florida,” the senator wrote in a press release.
The image of the scantily clad women was on Bennett’s computer screen for about 4 seconds before he closed it according to a Sunshine State News video.
He said the picture popped up when he opened an e-mail from a friend, who he would not identify.
Since then, the friend, Fay Rice, has come forward and talked to the media about the e-mail.
Rice, who graduated from Sarasota High School with Bennett, said she sent the photo to give the senator a hard time for missing the yearly class reunion this year because he was busy with legislative work in Tallahassee.
“I wasn’t going to disclose her name,” Bennett said Friday in a telephone interview.
He said she sent him three e-mails, one with a picture of people playing volleyball, the second of a dog running across the beach, and the third of the four women.
“She wrote something about this was what I was going miss,” Bennett said.
Since the video was posted on the Sunshine State News website, it has been reported around the world on various other websites and in international newspapers.
Although Bennett called the incident an innocent action that got blown out of proportion, Nancy Smith, executive editor of the Sunshine State News, said she does not regret posting the video.
“The only thing is if I had to do it over again is I would probably not call the picture porn,” Smith said.
“But I do think it was entirely inappropriate and risque,” she said.
As for Bennett’s apology, Smith said he should not have been reading personal e-mail during the session.
Bennett said legislators get a lot of e-mail from aides and constituents all the time on many of the issues being debated.
Rice was the former administrator for the circuit court in Sarasota County and was frequently sending Bennett e-mails on issues being considered in Tallahassee, he said.
“It was no big deal to get an e-mail from her,” Bennett said.
As for him listening to the debate instead of reading e-mail, Bennett said most of the time when an issue gets to the Senate floor he has heard all the debate two or three times.
“I knew how I was going to vote,” he said.
Smith said the incident would have ended if Bennett would have just allowed the Sunshine State News reporter to see the e-mail.
“I believe he has other things on the computer,” she said.
Bennett said the bigger issue is how things can get blown out of proportion because of the ease of sending items over the Internet.
“I would caution everybody about the e-mails you open up,” he said.