BY CARL HIAASEN
Rick Scott is our own man of mystery, Austin Powers without the hair mop and dance moves.
No Florida governor has ever operated with such jet-setting stealth, concealing so many details of his daily travels and contacts. He says he’s out working nonstop for the citizens of his adopted state, yet his official schedule is full of more gaps than the Nixon transcripts.
Occasionally, Floridians catch an intriguing glimpse of Scott’s shadow life. His secret hunting trip to a Texas game ranch courtesy of U.S. Sugar had been kept under wraps for more than a year before it was sniffed out by reporters from the Tampa Bay Times.
The governor still refuses to divulge who went with him, or whom he met. One known fact is that U.S. Sugar, an epic polluter of the Everglades, has donated more than $534,000 to Scott’s reelection campaign so far.
His recent predecessors regularly made public their detailed travel and work records, including political fund-raising trips. Up until Scott took office, it was generally accepted that Floridians have a right to know where their governor is going, and why.
Whenever Lawton Chiles took a private plane to a campaign stop, his office released not only the names but also the phone numbers of other passengers on the aircraft. Both Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, who’s running against Scott this year, often provided lists of who attended private meetings with them, and what subjects were discussed.
Since his arrival in Tallahassee, Scott has promised “transparency,” and on his first day signed an executive order restarting the Office of Open Government, which is supposed to help Floridians gain easier access to public records.
However, Scott’s concept of a public record is narrow, to put it kindly.
By using his own Cessna Citation instead of a state jet, he definitely saves the taxpayers money. He also conveniently shields himself from potentially embarrassing inquiries regarding his whereabouts.
The tail numbers of his plane have been removed from flight-tracking websites, so you can’t see where it’s heading or where it’s been. Scott and his staff won’t disclose even the most basic travel information —destination, times of departure and arrival — until days after the trip, if then.
Key details are typically blacked out, using a public-records exemption that was intended to shield “surveillance techniques” of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The FDLE provides security staff for the governor.
His secrecy obsession policy extends beyond his travel plans.
As part of his initial push for transparency, Scott launched of Project Sunburst, which was supposed to makes available his state emails and those of his executive staff.
It would have been good for open government, if only Scott’s chief of staff (and then his successor) hadn’t ordered all employees to use private emails and cellphone texts when discussing sensitive matters.
The objective was to hide important policy-making from outside scrutiny, reducing Project Sunburst to a farce.
A suit by Tallahassee lawyer Steven Andrews has revealed that private emails were used by Scott’s top staff, and even his wife, to coordinate a $5 million project to re-manicure the entrance of the governor’s mansion and purchase nearby real estate for a “governor’s park.”
The planning was being done on state time, and the Republican-controlled Legislature obligingly allotted $2.5 million for the makeover.
For the rest of the funds, a “Governor’s Mansion Foundation” hit up major companies eager to stay in Scott’s good graces — including Florida Power & Light, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the GEO Group, which operates two state prisons.
“U.S. Sugar just came thru w check for $100k!!!” burbled the mansion curator to Scott’s deputy chief of staff, via private email.
A judge’s order was necessary before this interesting message and others were uncovered. It’s a matter of significant public interest when corporations that rely on state approval shower hundreds of thousands of dollars on a sitting governor’s pet project.
You think U.S. Sugar or FPL gives a rat’s azalea about the landscaping at the mansion? They gave the money for the same reason they write campaign checks — to purchase favor.
Scott won’t talk about this because he is, after all, a man of mystery.
Now you see him, now you don’t.