Friday, February 23, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott steers clear of text messaging for public business, office says

TALLAHASSEE — In an era when text messaging is a universal form of instant communication — especially during hectic legislative sessions — Gov. Rick Scott and his top aide refuse to do it and don't want their employees doing it either, his office says.

The Times/Herald requested all text messages sent and received by Scott and his chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, as well as all three Cabinet members and their chiefs of staff, between Jan. 25 and Jan. 31.

The requests were made as part of an annual project by the Florida Society of News Editors to document government compliance with public records laws. The effort is part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government.

All three Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — produced several series of routine messages. But Scott produced no records, and his chief of staff, Sellers, produced one text message received on her phone.

Scott's chief spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said the governor discourages employees from texting on state business.

"The governor's office discourages the use of text messaging (for) state business by employees because text messages are hard to catalog due to the digital nature of the message," Schutz said.

The single text from Sellers' phone was from a friend identified as "Taylor" who got a job.

"Just accepted. Start week of 9th," said the message, which Scott's office posted on the Project Sunburst open government website in response to the request.

No reply message was provided, and Scott's office did not identify the person's full name or provide additional details.

Scott's policy, while highly unusual, was confirmed by lobbyists and legislators who say they communicate regularly with the governor's office.

"I never send text messages to them, and they wouldn't accept text messages if I did send them," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a tech-savvy Republican from St. Petersburg. "They specifically said, 'Call me.' That's how they want to do business, so I call them."

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a group supported by Florida media outlets that advocates in support of open government, said she was skeptical of Scott's position.

"I find it difficult to believe that the governor and his chief of staff don't use the easiest and most ubiquitous form of communication: text messages," Petersen said. "Given the governor's travel schedule, I would think the fact that they don't text would make communication much less efficient. I would want to know the reasoning behind such a decision or policy."

The quantity and quality of Scott's communication with legislators has been much discussed throughout the session, with Republicans describing Scott as disengaged from the daily minutiae of writing laws and a new state budget.

Scott frequently travels throughout Florida and out of state on his private jet.

During the week of Jan. 25-31, he held jobs announcements in Broward and Palm Beach counties before flying to Washington to speak at events hosted by Americans for Tax Reform and the Heritage Foundation, according to his official schedules for those days.

While in the nation's capital, Scott appeared on CNN and Fox News, and met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and syndicated columnist George Will before he returned to Tallahassee on Thursday of that week for a dinner with the board of Enterprise Florida.

That Friday morning, Scott gave a breakfast speech to EFI board members to advocate for a $250 million fund to attract jobs to Florida — a priority that Republican lawmakers would soon reject.

The Times/Herald has Scott's personal cellphone number. A text message sent to that number Thursday was not blocked by Scott's cellphone provider, but no response was provided.

Text messaging has become ubiquitous in the Capitol between individual legislators, between legislators and lobbyists and between reporters and legislators.

Times/Herald reporters routinely send text messages to legislators, seeking answers to questions or to quickly schedule one-on-one interviews.

The Times/Herald asked for "all public record text messages sent by or received between 12:01 a.m. Monday Jan. 25 and 12:01 a.m. Monday Feb. 1, including all public record text messages sent or received on a personal communication device."

By law, text messages sent and received by Florida public officials dealing with official business are public records, regardless of whether the device used is private or a government-owned phone.

All four officials responded quickly, with Putnam the first to respond. He provided texts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about rising flood levels in South Florida, and Chief of Staff Mike Joyner's texts on routine agency business.

Bondi produced texts that related to talks over siding with state attorneys in negotiations over how to rewrite Florida's death penalty sentencing law to comply with an adverse decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

"(Sen.) Rob Bradley will be with us," one Bondi text said.

Her office also produced texts between her chief of staff and an official in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Atwater produced text messages from three lobbyists — Carlos Cruz, former Sen. Jim Horne and Paul Sanford — and from two Republican House members who sought one-on-one meetings.

"Pepe, I didn't see this message until last night," Atwater told Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami. "I'm happy to talk when you are. Happy to come to your office as well."

Scott agreed last August to pay $700,000 to settle a public records lawsuit by attorney Steve Andrews over Scott's use of a private email account for state business. It was the first time in state history that a sitting governor agreed to settle allegations of violating public records laws.

Scott and all three Cabinet members agreed last June to provide greater transparency and training to settle a lawsuit filed by the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and other Florida news organizations.

The lawsuit followed Scott's secret dismissal, without a public vote, of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, who reported to the governor and Cabinet.

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

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