Gov. Rick Scott's political motives on trial in Broward courtroom
Gov. Rick Scott's political motivations went on trial Friday in a widening South Florida controversy involving community hospitals, a criminal investigation, a shocking suicide and allegations of corruption that are broad but still unproven.
Scott is being sued by ally-turned-enemy David Di Pietro, a 36-year-old Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Republican fundraiser who twice was appointed by the governor to the board of the North Broward Hosptial Districts, which runs a system of tax-supported hospitals.
On March 18, Scott suspended Di Pietro and a second appointee, Darryl Wright, from their unpaid posts after accusing both men of "malfeasance," one of several grounds to suspend an appointee. Scott said he acted on the advice of his chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, who began an elaborate review of hospital operations after the district's CEO, Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, committed suicide in January.
Miguel urged the suspensions, citing the potential for "interference and retaliation" against district employees and raising concerns of "fear, instability and lack of leadership." The suspensions followed a hospital board decision, initiated by Di Pietro, to hire the prominent Broward law firm of Berger Singerman to represent the board during the review.
Di Pietro fired back, accusing Scott of an abuse of power because he did not cite a single specific act of wrongdoing. "I'm fighting for my reputation. I've been damaged," Di Pietro told the Times/Herald.
The case unfolded Friday in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom before Broward Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips, who will decide whether Scott exceed his authority.
"The governor got it wrong. He acted precipituously and didn't act in a constitutional manner," Di Pietro's attorney, Bruce Green, told the judge. "You can't use executive power merely to set an example."
Scott's lawyer, Assistant Attorney General Blaine Winship, said Di Pietro and Wright violated a provision in the district's charter, approved by the Legislature, that defines malfeasance as "interference" with district employees other than three officials who report to the board itself. He said the interference included hiring of Berger Singerman and demanding that the firm's lawyers be present when Miguel was interviewing them as part of her investigation.
"The noninterference clause basically says to them, 'Back off,'" Winship told the judge. "The governor didn't do this lightly."
Scott's decision to inject his office into the district's day-to-day operations has heightened the controversy because of his history of criticism of tax-supported hospitals like those in North Broward.
Scott created the nation's largest network of for-profit hospitals — some of which are in Broward — and used his fortune to finance his successful campaign for governor in 2010. Another Scott appointee to the board said she is worried that Scott's actions are part of a broader strategy to "destabilize" the hospitals so that they are devalued and vulnerable to a takeover by a private company.
"It does feel that there has been an orchestrated effort to destabilize the system," said Scott appointee Maureen Canada, a Lighthouse Point homemaker whose father was a district board member three decades ago. "I feel as if our system has been treated unfairly."
As for Di Pietro, he said he's through supporting Scott, saying: "There's a level of trust that's just gone." If Scott runs for the U.S. Senate in 2018, Di Pietro told the Times/Herald, he hopes to raise money in Broward for Scott's presumed opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.