Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Florida Gov. Rick Scott cloaks travel details, citing security

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TALLAHASSEE — By using his personal jet for public business, Florida Gov. Rick Scott can shield his itinerary from websites that track flights, and when his plane lands, he uses a public records exemption to tighten the cloak of secrecy.

Wherever Scott goes, he's shadowed by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents. In citing a records exemption that protects FDLE "surveillance techniques" from publication, he withholds the members of his traveling party, restaurants and homes he visits, and people at meetings — all in the name of security.

To a much greater degree than the past three governors, Scott, former chief executive of the nation's largest private hospital chain, conceals information from the public about his travel.

Govs. Charlie Crist, Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles routinely released those details. Even Scott did until last year when he regularly began using the surveillance exemption.

Chiles, who served from 1991-98, released daily schedules that listed phone numbers and email addresses of flying passengers and tail numbers of private planes he used on days when he mixed state business with campaigning.

Bush often provided full details of meetings, including names of participants, as did Crist, who provided names of general aviation airports the state used and names of participants in private meetings.

In contrast, on a day in October when Scott traveled from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to Kissimmee, most details were withheld, including how long it took to get from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. No participants were listed, the address of his hotel was blacked out and a disclaimer at the bottom of each page read: "The information may be confidential because it bears upon the governor's security."

"Using a fully defensible interpretation of the public records exemption, what materials should be redacted in order to protect the physical security of the governor?" said Scott's top lawyer, general counsel Pete Antonacci.

He said the decision to withhold travel information followed "lots of interaction" between his office and FDLE, which assigns a special protective detail to handle the governor's security.

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a statewide watchdog group supported by Florida newspapers, said the exemption Scott and FDLE are using should not apply to his travel schedule.

"Clearly, the main purpose of the exemption is to protect surveillance techniques or procedures," Petersen said. "If you look at the definition of surveillance I don't see how it would apply to the governor's schedule. ... I think they're stretching the law in an unacceptable manner to reach the agency's desired result."

Crist, who's challenging Scott to retake the Governor's Mansion, said: "He's literally flying under the radar, and he's supposed to be the most visible public official in the state."

Crist faced criticism as governor for flying on private jets of wealthy supporters or campaign donors whom he declined to identify. He said he did that to avoid using taxpayer-owned state planes for personal or political reasons.

Scott promised to sell both state planes if elected, and he did. But because Scott flies in his own Cessna Citation jet, his office says that records of use and maintenance are not public, and Scott does not post flight logs on FlightAware.com, a tracking website.

On the day Scott took office, Jan. 4, 2011, he issued an executive order re-establishing the Office of Open Government to "facilitate Floridians' right to know and to have access to information with which they can hold government accountable."

Every day, Scott's office releases an advance schedule of meetings and events. It gets posted on the governor's official website, flgov.com. And it's rarely complete.

Large blocks are described as "staff time," including, for example, a meeting Scott held Feb. 20 with elected mayors of four of the state's biggest cities to discuss taxes, water, homelessness and other issues. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was among them.

The governor did not list the meeting on his schedule. A spokeswoman called it an oversight.

Scott's office blacks out travel information on a daily document known as a line-by-line, a more detailed version of the daily schedule released to the public and media.

Scott's line-by-lines are not available until at least several days later, after review and removals or "redactions" by his legal staff and FDLE. A Times/Herald review of dozens of Scott's line-by-lines for nine months shows an expanded use of the surveillance exemption.

FDLE, which prides itself on its professionalism and considers protection of a governor its paramount duty, supports keeping travel details secret to the extent the law allows, deputy FDLE Commissioner Mark Zadra said.

Every governor has a different philosophy about security, he said.

"Some of them are more security-conscious than others," Zadra said.

He said the decision to withhold Scott's travel details "was made to eliminate potential information out there that could be used to commit or plan some type of act against the governor."

Scott is constantly on the road and appears to enjoy it. He likes to eat lunch at Chipotle Grill or grab a drink at Starbucks, and he doesn't like to run late.

His aides cite other reasons for travel secrecy.

Scott spends many nights on the road at the same hotel chain where legal counsel Antonacci said Scott has a "discount arrangement." To identify the hotels on the line-by-lines would reveal a pattern of travel that could pose a security risk, officials said.

"It's a big deal with the security squad," Antonacci said. "They worry about this stuff."

Scott is usually reimbursed for hotel stays when he travels on state business.

Scott's top aide, chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, said security in general has become a bigger concern since 9/11.

"There was a time not that long ago when you could board an airplane with your shoes on. And you can't do that anymore," Hollingsworth said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

 

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