Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Opinion

Whoever's to blame, heavy vetting must stop

What is the world coming to when a governor starts using the time and resources of the state's top law enforcement agency to do background checks on parents who want to talk to him about public education?

That's what Gov. Rick Scott has been doing. Not much chance of hearing anything he doesn't want to hear this way.

Don't the folks at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have enough to do?

The practice came to light recently when a parent in Tallahassee complained that she was denied access to a meeting with the governor. Gretl Plessinger, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, refused to disclose why La'Tasha Reed Dullivan flunked its background test to attend a session of the governor's education "listening tour.''

It's particularly curious because Dullivan has passed background tests since 1993 in connection with her job as a child care worker and a Medicaid provider who screens young children. Those tests included fingerprinting, driving records and a search for any arrest record.

Concerned after she was rejected, Dullivan ran a check on herself, paying the $24 the FDLE charges for access to its database, and found no trace of a criminal history. Dullivan suspects she was rejected because she is a registered Democrat. The governor's staff denies it was a political party question, but no one will say why she flunked.

Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for the governor, blamed the whole thing on the FDLE. She says the governor plans to meet privately with Dullivan in early October to make up for the slight.

To be considered for meeting the governor, each parent had to fill out a form with a driver's license, Social Security number and date of birth. Similar forms are routinely required from those who attend gatherings with a president of the United States, but contrary to the claims in Tallahassee, they have never been routinely required for a meeting with prior Florida governors.

Although FDLE officials insist it has been a "long-standing practice'' to screen anyone who meets with the governor at his office, the Governor's Mansion or a public meeting, past governors and their former staffers deny this has ever been the practice.

"I never did that!'' former Gov. Charlie Crist responded when asked about the background checks.

Ron Sachs, former communications director for Gov. Lawton Chiles, says their office never sought background checks for people who met with the governor.

"I am not aware of that being done, or I'd have never been allowed to meet with the governor myself when I worked for him,'' Sachs joked.

Jill Chamberlin, former communications director for Gov. Bob Graham, says no such background checks were made for people who met with Graham, a gregarious politician who has always enjoyed meeting and greeting Floridians.

Kathleen Shanahan, former chief of staff for Gov. Jeb Bush, says he never asked for such background checks before Floridians met with Bush.

Background checks have been used by governors only in association with appointments to official positions, or to check on people who had done something to indicate they might be a threat to the safety of a governor or his staff.

Former Deputy FDLE Commissioner Daryl McLaughlin says the agency never routinely made background checks on people meeting a governor unless a question was raised by the FDLE security detail that guards each governor.

It makes sense to see what's cooking in the background of a person who is about to get a high-paying state job handling millions of taxpayer dollars, or to check out a suspicious person hanging around the state's chief executive.

It makes no sense to check the backgrounds of people who are going to meet a governor who is always surrounded by armed law enforcement officers.

Crist, Bush, Chiles and Graham were governors who loved to wade into a crowd of Floridians, working a room, an airplane or an entire airport on the spur of the moment. Hard to imagine any of them insisting on a background check before shaking a hand or giving someone a hug.

Adam Hollingsworth, the new chief of staff for Scott, says he plans to meet with FDLE officials next week to see just why such background checks are being done.

"At the end of the day we need to balance the security of the governor with the value of the public having interaction with him,'' Hollingsworth said. "I want to make an independent judgment of what the right thing to do is. I want to be sure the public has access to this governor.''

That's a step in the right direction. Something is fundamentally wrong when background checks are being routinely run on Floridians meeting with the governor, at least one person is rejected for reasons that are not explained — and the claim that it's just the way it always has been done is at odds with the truth.

Lucy Morgan is a Times senior correspondent.

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