Timing of Rick Scott’s latest Puerto Rico announcement raises questions

The governor's office announced a donation of surplus police cars shortly after the campaign launched a new digital ad about Puerto Rico.
Surplus FHP cruisers, some with less than 100,000 miles, are going to Puerto Rico [Governor's Office]
Surplus FHP cruisers, some with less than 100,000 miles, are going to Puerto Rico [Governor's Office]
Published Jun. 7, 2018|Updated Jun. 7, 2018

Florida is donating 25 used Dodge Charger police cars to Puerto Rico to help the storm-battered island.

That piece of news came from Gov. Rick Scott's office Wednesday afternoon, about 45 minutes after Scott's campaign launched a digital ad that claims that he's "the one public official who's actually helping" Puerto Rico recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria.

The timing of the messaging sure looked curious.

Asked about the juxtaposition of the two announcements, Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said: "This isn't about politics. This is about helping Puerto Rico during its time of need. The distribution of news releases to the media is done at the sole discretion of the communications office."

The liberal group American Bridge accused Scott of "misusing state government — again — to aid his Senate campaign." The group called the governor an "unethical political scam artist."

The official press release about the cars quotes Scott saying: "I have visited the island six times to offer guidance, assistance and support."

The text of the online political ad says: "Governor Scott has been to Puerto Rico six times since Hurricane Maria."

Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, a Scott ally, did not take issue with Scott's ad, but said in a text message: "Many stepped up to help Puerto Rico, including me."

Scott's office said Puerto Rico asked for surplus cruisers. The Times/Herald has asked the governor for documentation of that request.

New Jersey donated 19 surplus police cars to Puerto Rico last December.

Most of the 60-second spot accuses Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of politicizing relief efforts in Puerto Rico and falsely criticizing Scott.

The ad also claims Nelson has been in Washington for a half century. It's actually 30 years — 12 years in Congress and 18 in the Senate.

As for those police cars, they are all Florida Highway Patrol cruisers between the years 2006 and 2012, FHP said, and have mileage between 82,186 and 213,638. The cruisers were taken off the road in December 2017 and January 2018, under rules that allow cars to be taken off the road after reaching 80,000 miles.

Scott's office said the transfer took months to accomplish among state and federal agencies and that the shipment is being paid by FEMA.

The Florida Department of Corrections has long struggled with a need for replacement vehicles. The prison system relies on big, specially equipped transport vans capable of moving multiple inmates at one time.

In the past two fiscal years (this year and last), the Legislature has under-funded the agency's requests for new vehicles. Last year, Scott requested $4.2 million for vehicles and the Legislature appropriated $1 million.

With reporting by Mary Ellen Klas, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau