TALLAHASSEE -- Some gas pumps in Florida are looking a little different.

The seals signifying that gas pumps have been inspected by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are in the process of being replaced by new stickers with a colorful blue and green design and the face of Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried.

The sticker includes a phone number to report fraud and the web address for a consumer portal, and it replaces the traditional seal from administrations past — none of which had the face of the commissioner.

But the decals, which were made and sent out before a bill for the 2019-20 budget was passed, are now out of compliance. The bill, which takes effect July 1, explicitly says the sticker on the gas pump may only use a “combination of lettering, numbering, words, or the department logo.” Legislators added the language in the final days of session.

That means no photos of Fried.

[Times/Herald]
[Times/Herald]

Max Flugrath, a spokesman for Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the department is reviewing the language to “see if any changes are going to be needed.” He declined to comment further.

The new sticker — with Fried’s face — had drawn the ire of critics on social media, who contend the department is using taxpayer dollars to promote Fried, elected in November and the only Cabinet member who is a Democrat. She’s from Fort Lauderdale.

Leon County GOP chair Evan Power, who tweeted about the sticker, said he thinks the sticker goes beyond the scope of Fried’s job as agriculture commissioner.

“This looked like a campaign ad,” he said. “That’s what made it stand out on a gas sticker.”

Fried’s staff insists that having her face on the sticker is not free campaign advertising but an “innovative approach” to “raise awareness” of gas pump fraud.

They said the new decal design brings attention to the issue using bright colors, a photo, larger text and Spanish-language information.

The decal, designed by the marketing department, went through several levels of staff approvals before Fried approved it, according to Flugrath.

“Gas pump skimmers are an exponentially growing problem in Florida, with each device having the potential to cost consumers $1 million,” he said. “If some choose to attack innovative approaches that raise awareness of the issue, that sounds like petty politics instead of advancing solutions to protect Florida taxpayers.”

“Card skimming” involves attaching devices to machines that read the information on your debit or credit cards when you swipe them, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury. The devices can range from a piece of equipment that clamps onto the card reader’s internal wiring for criminals to later retrieve, to sophisticated devices that take stolen credit card data via Bluetooth.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees 464,000 gas pumps, checking for credit card skimmers, safety and accuracy.

Fried has taken a special interest in protecting customers against credit card fraud at skimmers and made it a point earlier this year to highlight legislation aimed at creating a task force to address it. The bills died before the legislative session ended.

Former state Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican who ran against Fried for agriculture commissioner, said he doesn’t approve of the way public dollars are being spent to promote her face instead of using the traditional seal.

During his campaign, Caldwell said that he wouldn’t use public dollars for his campaign and urged Fried to do the same. She took $158,507 in public money, which candidates for governor and statewide offices can receive in the form of matching funds. The only other candidate for agriculture commissioner to take public money was Denise Grimsley, who accepted $275,183.

He added that when he served in the House representing parts of southwest Florida, he never used the allotted state funds to send newsletters to constituents, because it was “essentially just campaigning on the public taxpayer’s dollar.”

“Elected office is public service,” he said. “To use taxpayer money in any capacity is inappropriate. That should be a separate part of the political process. I certainly always try to be very conscious about using public money for self-promotion.”

Power, the Leon County GOP chair, likened Fried to former Secretary of State and one-time pick for lieutenant governor Sandy Mortham, who came under similar fire in the late 1990s when she became embroiled in an ethical scandal about her spending and travel costs ahead of her election.

According to a 1998 article in the Tampa Tribune, she left the ticket alongside Jeb Bush when questions were raised about her use of money meant for state historic museums, which the secretary of state oversees.

Mortham, who was part of the Florida Cabinet then, was accused of using the money instead for parties for her staff, a video about her home county, and promotional giveaways like key rings and pens.

“I just don’t like the outward politicization of using an official action to promote somebody,” Power said. His tweet drew replies in agreement, as well as a few who said it didn’t really matter.

It’s not unprecedented for elected officials to use their public roles to increase recognition. Before Hurricane Irma, for example, when Gov. Rick Scott lifted tolls on Florida’s Turnpike, the message boards on the road said, “Tolls suspended by order of governor.”

The stickers placed on gas pumps under former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had the department seal and a QR code that customers could scan to file a complaint. Four years ago, the link was changed to point at the department’s website, freshfromflorida.com.

The QR code was meant to serve as a tool for easy digital updating, so stickers with expired inspection dates wouldn’t have to be replaced. The Fried stickers have neither QR codes nor an inspection date.

Flugrath said the reason for a lack of QR code is that the department’s marketing team found that most consumers don’t use the codes unless they deal with a rebate of some sort. For the function of filing a complaint, he said, it was not widely used. The inspection date was taken off the seal under the last administration and was not replaced this year, he said.

Former Agriculture Commissioner Putnam declined to comment, and his predecessor, Charlie Bronson, could not be reached.