Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's office was intimately involved in Planned Parenthood investigation

TALLAHASSEE — When state health officials released the results of an investigation into Planned Parenthood clinics last month, Gov. Rick Scott's office was whispering in their ears.

Aides to the governor were intimately involved in crafting the message when the agency announced allegations that three Florida Planned Parenthood clinics had violated their licenses. Nearly every on-the-record statement given by the Agency for Health Care Administration to reporters and the public was first approved by a member of Scott's communications team, emails obtained by the Times/Herald show.

Scott's staff rewrote press releases about the investigation and penned some statements that were attributed to AHCA executives. His office even directed the health care agency to cut a sentence in a draft press release that acknowledged the main reason the investigation fell short: Inspectors found no evidence that Florida Planned Parenthood clinics broke the law by operating a fetal tissue donation program.

After results of the investigation were made public, the emails show, Scott's staff continued its involvement by orchestrating attempts by AHCA staffers to persuade reporters to change parts of their stories.

Politico first reported the involvement of the governor's office in a story last week. Scott's office wasn't involved in investigating Planned Parenthood beyond the public statements, AHCA spokeswoman Shelisha Coleman said.

However, Scott has been closely tied to the investigation from the start. He publicly ordered the investigations in late July after videos went viral online that appeared to show Planned Parenthood employees in other states discussing fetal organ donation.

Barbara Zdravecky, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said she's concerned about Scott's behind-the-scenes involvement.

"Florida deserves to have elected officials who care about their citizens and who don't use politics to get in the way of the best possible scenarios for the citizens," Zdravecky said of access to women's health care.

The intervention of Scott's office was perhaps most direct — and controversial — in describing the results of the investigation to the public.

After inspections turned up no evidence of a fetal organ donation program involving Florida clinics, AHCA drafted a statement that said, "there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains." But that sentence was removed after it was sent to Jackie Schutz, Scott's communications director, for approval.

The omission was met with displeasure and confusion from high-level staff inside AHCA. Emails from Deputy Secretary Molly McKinstry and communications director Katherine Riviere show they didn't agree with the decision.

"I would have thought a line on no evidence of mishandling of fetal remains would be included as that's what questions will be on," Riviere wrote.

An email from AHCA Secretary Liz Dudek says that she thought the scrubbed statement from Scott's office "is what they will okay."

Throughout the investigation — from Scott's announcement of it July 29 through a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood on Aug. 17 — public statements made by AHCA were subject to approval from Schutz. Emails show statements were "run by downtown" or "discussed with EOG," the Executive Office of the Governor.

Neither the governor's office nor AHCA would discuss their email exchanges in detail.

"Our office often works with our agencies on materials," Schutz said in a statement Wednesday. She wouldn't elaborate or discuss whether this level of involvement in agency operations is common.

For its part, AHCA responded to Times/Herald questions Wednesday with a similarly-phrased statement: "We often work with the Governor's Office on materials."

AHCA said its inspections found that clinics in St. Petersburg, Naples and Fort Myers were performing abortions in the second trimester but were only licensed for first-trimester procedures. Planned Parenthood denies the allegations, saying that those clinics have only conducted abortions through the first trimester, or the 14th week after a woman's last menstrual period — the commonly accepted way to measure the length of a pregnancy. Furthermore, they say they haven't changed how they reported those procedures to the state.

On Aug. 17, an "agency statement" from AHCA attributed to Riviere challenged Planned Parenthood further, saying the organization "self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions." Emails show that this statement was actually written by John Tupps, the governor's deputy communications director.

After the Times/Herald decided not to publish that portion of the statement and instead to write that the state and Planned Parenthood disagreed over the claim, the governor's staff instructed AHCA that the "whole statement" about self-reporting unauthorized abortions should be included. Three minutes later, Riviere sent an email to reporters to ask that the story be changed.

Scott, like some other Republican governors, has repeatedly questioned Planned Parenthood's operation since the controversial videos went viral in July.

"I can only speculate on what the motivation might be," Zdravecky said. "There does seem to be some pattern here across the country, particularly with Republican governors rising to the challenge to target Planned Parenthood."

Asked last month why his administration is keen on investigating Planned Parenthood for practices the organization says it has not changed in at least nine years, the pro-life governor pointed immediately to those videos.

"As anybody that saw those videos regarding Planned Parenthood, it was very disturbing and troubling," he said. "So, we did the right thing, we said we're going to make sure that the Planned Parenthood facilities in Florida are compliant with the law, so AHCA went in to do that."

Times/Herald staff writers Daniel Chang and Michael Majchrowicz contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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