TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday he will launch an inquiry into why people were selectively removed from an event in the Villages where he signed the state's $69.1 billion budget.
But one week after the incident, Scott said he knew few facts about it and refused to say whether he'd be concerned to find out any taxpayers were escorted from the event.
"I heard about some issues, but that was before I got there," Scott said Thursday in his first public comments on the matter.
The protesters were removed by a Sumter County sheriff's deputy who is shown in a YouTube video telling protesters that people with signs in support of Scott could stay. The deputy was acting on a request from a "private entity" that leased the Villages gathering space, a Sheriff's Office spokesman said.
Lt. Bobby Caruthers said the deputies were on the clock at the time, but "no one knew" who asked them to remove protesters, who asked the sheriff's deputies to attend the event or who leased the event space.
"It's got the look that it's a public event in a public area, but the square was privately leased," Caruthers said.
Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said the Republican Party of Florida leased the site and paid for other expenses.
The St. Petersburg Times witnessed Russ Abrams, a $60,000-a-year special assistant to Scott, order deputies to remove the protesters. Abrams told the Times it was a private event.
Burgess said taxpayers will foot the bill for Abrams and other staff members who accompanied the governor.
Phone calls seeking comment to Republican Party spokesman Trey Stapleton and the Villages spokesman Gary Lester were not returned.
First Amendment lawyer Lawrence Walters said holding the event at a privately leased spot might clear Scott from any constitutional issues.
"But it's shameful our governor would be part of any meeting where the public was forcibly removed," Walters said.
State Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, sent Scott a list of pointed questions about the event Thursday after several constituents asked him what happened.
In an interview, Pafford noted that Scott has faced repeated questions about his commitment to the state's open-government laws.
Scott hosted a private dinner for a trio of state senators on the day he announced his budget recommendations at the Governor's Mansion. The budget recommendation was a topic of discussion.
Scott has implemented an aggressive fee schedule for copies of public records, and his top policy adviser, Mary Anne Carter, has acknowledged she doesn't use her state e-mail so as to avoid public records law.
"The concern is that there seems to be a pattern with the Governor's Office in terms of not being up front," Pafford said.
Former Gov. Bob Graham, who has become an increasingly vocal critic of Scott's, said he signed his state budgets in Tallahassee, and they were never considered a partisan political event.
"The idea that something as important as the way almost $70 billion of Florida tax dollars is spent would be treated as a private event paid for by a political party is pretty far opposite the history of Florida," he said.
Times/Herald staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.