THE VILLAGES — A day after some Democrats were removed from Gov. Rick Scott's budget signing by sheriff's deputies because the event was "private," a Scott spokesman tried to deflect blame by claiming that Scott's office ordered no one out.
Only that's not true.
On Friday, Scott spokesman Lane Wright — who did not attend the event at the Villages, a conservative retirement community — told the website Politic365 that it was "disappointing to know that anyone who made the effort to be at such an important event wasn't allowed in."
"Gov. Scott did not have these individuals removed," Wright said. "This was a public event. It was brought to our attention that the local authorities had removed some. We don't know first-hand who was removed or why."
The St. Petersburg Times witnessed the entire incident. Here's what happened:
The $69.1 billion budget signing took place in a town square owned by the Villages Community Development District, which functions as the community's government. The space, however, is leased to the Village's corporate developer. And in this case, it was subleased by the Republican Party of Florida, said Barbara Vesco, director of entertainment and special events for the Villages.
Scott staffers dressed in dark suits and wearing black ear pieces summoned Sumter County sheriff's deputies. They told the deputies that the state budget signing was a private event and that a group of Democrats standing or sitting in the last two rows of the audience must leave.
Deputies went to tell the group to leave. The Democrats mentioned how the event was described as being open to the public in the local newspaper, the Villages Daily Sun. "Well, I don't read that paper," the deputy responded.
The group of Democrats then said it was unfair that they were being singled out.
"You all are preaching to the choir," the same deputy told them. "I'm doing what I'm told."
The deputies received their instructions from Russ Abrams, a $60,000-a-year special assistant to Scott. When a Times reporter approached Abrams to ask why some people were being asked to leave, Abrams said: The budget signing was "a private event." When asked more questions, Abrams said: "I don't need to talk to the press," and then, "I don't have anything to say."
Wright told the Times any decisions on the crowd should have been handled by the owner of the land, not Scott's office. Republican Party spokesman Trey Stapleton did not return a message seeking comment. Neither did a spokesman for the Sumter County Sheriff's Office.
It's not the only headache Scott's office is dealing with in the wake of what was supposed to be a celebration of his $615 million in vetoes.
Some Republicans are upset by an extraordinary decision by the Republican Party of Florida to pay for automatic "robo calls" to voters Friday to gin up support for Scott's decision to veto millions in hometown spending earmarks. In the recorded calls, Scott derides the hometown projects as "special interest waste" and asks voters to call legislators and ask them to divert the vetoed money into education.
The purpose of the calls backfired, according to some.
Former Republican state Rep. J.C. Planas of Miami said he was called and was infuriated that needy projects were being described as waste. What's more, he said, the incoming number on his cell phone caller ID showed that it was his own number phoning in — a process of disguising calls known as "spoofing."
"It's bad enough that he's hurting my community with these vetoes and misrepresenting the purpose of them," Planas said. "But then he's spoofing my phone? Why?"
House Republican leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami was irked that the calls suggested the Republican-controlled Legislature skimped on education — when it was Scott himself who called for a deeper cut.
"The Republican Party of Florida is paying for this?" Lopez-Cantera asked. "That's interesting. I'm on the Republican Executive Committee and I'm Miami-Dade's state committeeman, and no one gave me so much as a courtesy call that they were going to be doing this."