TALLAHASSEE — A police union official filed a complaint Thursday with the Florida Elections Commission, accusing Gov. Rick Scott of illegally coercing on-duty police officers to attend a campaign event in Tampa on Monday.
The complaint was filed by Jeff Marano of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union supporting Scott's leading Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist. Marano is president of the PBA's Broward County chapter.
Under Florida law, it's a first-degree misdemeanor for a public official to "directly or indirectly coerce" any employee to engage in political activity, and employees are prohibited from doing so while working.
Scott's campaign said it made its intentions clear but a high-ranking member of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office insisted that he believed he was going to a state event to meet the governor and discuss ways to reduce crime, which is why he asked several deputies to come along.
"We obviously didn't know we were going to a campaign event," said Hillsborough Col. Jim Previtera. "Had we known it was a campaign event, we wouldn't have been there."
Previtera said he was working on Friday, the Fourth of July, when Cody Vildostegui, a Scott campaign aide, asked him to attend a press conference Monday about reducing crime. Previtera's boss, Sheriff David Gee, who supports Scott, was unable to attend.
Also in attendance was another Scott supporter, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who said the same campaign staffer made it clear to him that it was an event promoting Scott's re-election bid.
"It was unequivocally clear to me that this was purely a political event," Gualtieri said. "I knew what I was going into … Where the communication broke down, I don't know, but it didn't break down with me."
Gualtieri said Scott's campaign even asked him for his private email address to avoid using a government email account for political purposes.
As an elected official, Gualtieri is exempt from the ban on public employees attending campaign events during working hours.
The Tampa event was part of Scott's three-city "Let's Keep Florida Safe" campaign swing. Public notifications of the events were made by his campaign, not the governor's office.
Also present were Holmes Beach police Chief William Tokajer and Craig Baker, a law enforcement officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a state agency under Scott's control.
FWC spokeswoman Katie Purcell said she didn't know who told Baker to attend but that the request came from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which she said asks FWC to provide additional security for the governor at events.
"There was a misunderstanding as to what it was for," Purcell said. "We were under the impression that's what it was for. It turned out to be more of a political event."
FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger confirmed Purcell's account, and said it was a misunderstanding. "We've taken steps to ensure similar misunderstandings will not occur in the future," Plessinger said.
To buttress his allegations, Marano cited news reports by WFLA-Ch. 8, the Tampa Tribune and WTVT-Ch. 13, which quoted Chief Tokajer as saying the campaign did not tell him that the event was political.
Tokajer did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
"Rick Scott's political campaign facilitated the violation of (law) by soliciting the assistance of on-duty law enforcement officers — under the false pretense of security — only to repeatedly feature them as props in the background of campaign events," Marano's complaint alleges.
Marano's allegation is one of a record number of elections and ethics complaints filed against Scott or Crist. Both sides are using the complaint process to attack their opponents on everything from a law firm's billboards featuring Crist's face to Scott's reporting of his use of a family-owned jet for campaign travel.
A dozen have been filed so far with more likely to come.
"If what it alleges is true, it's disgusting," Crist said of the latest complaint after a speech at a statewide news editors meeting in Coral Gables. "To lure law enforcement officers unknowingly to a political campaign event is something I didn't even think Rick Scott would do."
Scott's campaign issued a response that did not address the allegations in the complaint.
"This is just another sad distraction from Charlie Crist's numerous ethical problems, including his broken promise to be transparent by releasing tax returns for both himself and his spouse," Scott campaign spokesman Greg Blair said.
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan and Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @SteveBousquet.