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Gov. Rick Scott signs Cuba-crackdown bill, but it's a public relations fiasco

Gov. Rick Scott is greeted by a supporter before signing House Bill 959 at the Freedom Tower in Miami on Tuesday.
Published May 2, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott began Tuesday morning as the darling of Miami's Cuban exile community, but by day's end he was being vilified for the way he handled a bill cracking down on companies that do business with Cuba and Syria.

Shortly after praising their fellow Republican for signing the law at the historic Freedom Tower, Cuban-American lawmakers at the event learned Scott issued a letter that essentially declared it unenforceable.

The lawmakers — members of Congress, legislators and local commissioners — said Scott blindsided them and undermined the legislation, which prohibits state and local taxpayers from hiring firms that do work in Cuba and Syria.

After a heated telephone conversation with Scott, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, said he was ready to take the governor to court.

"As a Florida taxpayer who does not want my tax dollars going to companies that do business with terrorist regimes, I am more than willing to sue the governor and the state of Florida to force implementation of this law," Rivera said.

"I'm sure the governor has been misled by his staff and hope he will reconsider his position so that it does not result in a lawsuit," said Rivera, who later joined state lawmakers on Spanish-language radio to bash Scott.

But Scott's administration said the governor was clear Tuesday morning about the law when he appeared on a couple of Spanish-language radio stations. He said that, since this state law involves foreign trade, the president and Congress need to expressly authorize it.

"The way it works is, it's not operative until the federal government passes legislation," Scott told WQBA-AM (1140) an hour before the bill signing.

"Right now, there's federal legislation that allows you not to do business with Sudan and Iran. But there's not federal legislation for Syria and Cuba yet," he said. "So President Obama needs to do it. It's the right thing to do. We need to continue to put pressure on Cuba and Syria. Both of them are repressive regimes."

But the Republican lawmakers at the event, including the congressional members, said Scott is wrong; Congress doesn't need to change the law.

The confusion and finger-pointing is a case study of Miami's highly emotional exile politics and underscores how Scott, a political newcomer, is still feeling his way around the state's sometimes-treacherous politics.

Scott's error: He never told any of the lawmakers that he would issue a signing statement that mentioned what he said on the radio. After the event, he failed to clearly mention his concerns in a 12-minute question-and-answer session. His office then issued his letter after the bill-signing, leading some to accuse the governor of disguising his intentions to help big business.

That one act turned a picture-perfect election-year bill signing into a public relations fiasco.

Earlier, Scott was cheered for ceremonially signing the bill by Rivera and his fellow U.S. representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. Rep. Connie Mack also spoke, as did the legislation sponsors, state Rep. Michael Bileca of Miami and Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah. Florida House Republican leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera hosted the event.

Former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz Balart and the legislators said that Scott's position in his letter doesn't change the state law. He signed it. And therefore it goes into effect July 1, regardless of what Scott writes, they said. But they're worried that Scott's written concerns will be Exhibit A in a future lawsuit challenging the restrictions.

Scott's spokesman, Brian Burgess, said the governor is basing his decision on the legal analysis of staffers, not politics.

"It's unfortunate people are taking out their frustrations on the governor," Burgess said. "The governor has done his part. He supports this legislation. He signed it. He stands with them."

The state law would prohibit state and local governments from hiring companies with business ties in Cuba or Syria for contracts worth at least $1 million. A main target: Odebrecht, the giant Brazilian engineering and construction conglomerate.

Odebrecht USA, a Coral Gables-based U.S. subsidiary, has been involved in most of South Florida's major projects, including the North Terminal at Miami International Airport and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Odebrecht officials and the president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce had lobbied the governor and Attorney General Pam Bondi behind the scenes to veto the proposal.

When a veto began to look unlikely, they pushed for Scott to keep the portion of the legislation keeping the state from investing in companies expanding trade with Cuba — but to question whether the portion affecting state and local government contracts would be enforceable. It's unclear which, or how many, companies would be affected by the legislation.

Alfredo Durán, a Miami lawyer and Bay of Pigs veteran who advocates for U.S. dialogue with Cuba, called the law an election-year attempt aimed at Cuban-American voters.

"The Legislature cannot override U.S. foreign policy," he said. "It's a hypocritical exercise to wrap themselves around the Cuban flag."

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