TALLAHASSEE — It's likely too late to make a difference now, but Gov. Rick Scott's attorney on Thursday sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court admitting he got a key fact wrong when he argued on behalf of the governor in a lawsuit challenging his decision to kill the high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando.
Scott attorney Charles Trippe told the court in oral arguments on March 3 that the state had spent $110 million of the $131 million appropriated by the federal government to build the line.
"In fact, approximately $31 million has been spent on the high speed rail project," Trippe wrote in a two-page letter to the court. "I sincerely regret the error."
Trippe blamed the mistake on miscommunication with the Florida Department of Transportation.
State Sens. Thad Altman and Arthenia Joyner filed the suit against the governor to compel him to allow the high-speed rail project to go forward. They argued that he had overstepped his executive authority by refusing to spend money appropriated by state lawmakers and moving forward with a project approved by the Legislature in a special session. But with a deadline looming to make a decision, the justices denied the petition, saying they had limited information on which to rule. As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation yanked $2.4 billion designated for Florida to build the 84-mile bullet train.
Altman said he believes the dollar figure was critical to the case, because the large sum of unspent money shows the governor was "impounding" funds he was obligated to spend.
"We were approaching the end of the fiscal year. And if he spent $110 million out of the $131 million, how do you allege he's not implementing the law? He spent a vast majority of the money," Altman said. "But if it's only $30 million, and there are only four months left in the fiscal year, it's a stronger case."
Altman said he isn't sure if he will reopen the case. Doing so would not likely make a difference in terms of getting the money back to Florida to pay for the project. But it could make a point.
"There was a big misrepresentation of the facts. Would this be a legitimate reason to reopen this case and reassert that the governor misused his authority? Certainly, clearly it shows either his office didn't know what was going on or they misrepresented the facts," Altman said. "What is the bigger and more important question is the misuse of executive authority and not faithfully implementing the law. That applies not only to rail, but many other things."
A second suit has been filed in the Florida Supreme Court arguing that the governor overstepped his authority be freezing rules working their way through the rule-making process. The court has ordered the governor to submit a response to that case on April 25.