Times/Herald staff writer Samantha Gross contributed to this report.
TALLAHASSEE — Standing on the front porch of the Governor’s Mansion, Candidate Rick Scott accused “unethical liberals” of plotting to steal a U.S. Senate seat from him and keep safe for his Democratic opponent, Bill Nelson.
But it was clearly Governor Rick Scott who moments later asked the state law enforcement agency under his control to investigate Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes’ operation, though he did not offer additional specifics.
As it turns out, there is no investigation. Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Scott did not submit his request in writing, and that no allegation of voter fraud in Broward has been sent to the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections.
“We do not have an active investigation,” Plessinger said.
But the episode underscored the lack of a clear dividing line between his dual roles as candidate for higher office and his current job as governor.
The alert calling reporters to Thursday night’s news conference came from Scott’s Senate campaign — not his state office. He held the presser at the official state residence, a taxpayer-funded site traditionally off-limits to all partisan political activity.
No candidate can hope to pull off such a request for a criminal probe. When the Times/Herald asked Scott’s office for more details, his spokesman directed questions to Scott’s Senate campaign, which did not respond Friday.
Snipes has been criticized repeatedly for mistakes that have included opening ballots before polls closed and destroying ballots that should have been preserved. Scott went further Thursday, with allegations of “rampant fraud.”
Criticism rained down on Scott for trying to draw the FDLE, an independent law enforcement agency, into a political controversy and an election recount.
Some said it was an abuse of his authority as governor. It was not the first time that Scott has been accused of politicizing the state law enforcement apparatus.
“It is not appropriate for the governor of any state to suggest he is going to use the powers of the state as governor to interject his law enforcement authority to prevent the counting of ballots that have been lawfully cast, especially in an election in which he stands,” said Marc Elias, a lawyer for Nelson in upcoming political and legal battles over mandatory statewide recounts. “It would be highly inappropriate and I can assure you that we will take all the necessary steps in court (to protect Nelson).”
The agency isn’t known for chasing election fraud.
It has brought multiple charges of voter fraud once during Scott’s eight years as governor. It happened in tiny Madison County, where the local election supervisor and a group of residents were accused of absentee ballot fraud in a local school board race, but in the end, charges were dropped.
Democrats took Scott’s request for an FDLE investigation as a blatant act of intimidation.
“It’s absurd, honestly,” said Cynthia Busch, chairwoman of the Broward Democratic Party. “He’s essentially threatening the supervisor of elections in Broward County and attempting to undermine her ability to do her work and count the ballots that are outstanding.”
Hal Valeche, a Palm Beach County commissioner and a Republican, said Scott acted appropriately to defend the integrity of the election. But the commissioner said it would help if Scott would provide evidence that supports his allegations of “rampant fraud” in the Broward and Palm Beach elections offices.
Scott “is in a very tough spot,” Valeche said. “He has a responsibility to make sure that the laws of Florida are followed, but also the outcome (of the election) affects him. I think he’s always tried to do the right thing for Florida. I wouldn’t think his own personal interest in this would affect how he acts as governor.”
Three years ago, Scott, without explanation, demanded the resignation of a former FDLE commissioner, Gerald Bailey, with no public discussion or vote, even though Bailey reported to the governor and the three elected Cabinet members.
Before a public vote could be held, Scott chose a senior FDLE official, Rick Swearingen, as commissioner, a decision later ratified in public.
Swearingen is still in charge at FDLE. He did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Scott apologized in 2016 for dismissing Bailey and following a lawsuit by most Florida news organizations, he and the Cabinet adopted changes to make hiring, firing and reviews of agency heads more transparent.
Former Democratic state Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale accused Scott of political grandstanding in a “Trump-like” manner, and said his actions echoed those of Brian Kemp. The Republican nominee for Georgia governor used his power as Secretary of State to influence the voting process in a race in which he was a candidate (Kemp resigned as Secretary of State on Thursday).