1. Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott headed to Colombia with huge delegation to promote Florida business

Published Dec. 2, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott heads to Colombia today to drum up business with Florida's second-largest trading partner, his seventh overseas trip since taking office.

Scott will lead a delegation of nearly 200, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a bigger entourage than on any of his previous trade missions. The three-day visit to Bogota is yet another opportunity for Scott, the onetime CEO of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, to act as his state's chief salesman and promoter.

"The purpose is to build relationships with Florida businesses so either we sell something to them or they invest in our state," Scott said. "One of the biggest things that we get out of Colombia is flowers."

Millions of cut flowers pass through the Port of Miami every year, a sweet-smelling part of the $9 billion annually in two-way trade between Florida and Colombia. Other major products Colombia exports to Florida are gold, oil, coal and men's clothing.

In less than two years, Scott also has visited Panama, Canada, Brazil, Israel, Spain and Britain, trips aimed largely at pitching foreign investment in Florida. All told, those trips cost taxpayers more than $332,000, with some travel and lodging donated by hotels and airlines.

Scott's office said the trade missions are creating hundreds of jobs, including three Spanish companies setting up shop in Miami-Dade.

Security alone for the trip to Brazil totaled $77,000. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement declined to say how many agents are guarding Scott and first lady Ann Scott in Colombia. Also accompanying the governor's party are his traveling press secretary, a travel aide and Mrs. Scott's chief of staff.

The governor noted that in his career as a hospital executive and mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, he has traveled to 43 foreign countries, but he has not yet visited Colombia.

Scott, who turned 60 Saturday, already has traveled more extensively than former Govs. Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush did in office.

Crist made three trips in four years, the last a controversial 12-day journey to England and Russia with then-fiancee Carole Rome as a "guest delegate" that cost taxpayers more than $430,000, including $2,200-a-night London hotel rooms. Bush made a four-day visit to Bogota in February 2005.

Scott's Bogota trip will focus on boosting exports of Florida products and services, which include electronic telephone equipment, aircraft and auto engine parts and printer ink.

Scott's top economic development adviser, Enterprise Florida CEO Gray Swoope, said the trips build relationships that help to diversify Florida's economy.

"We're an international state," Swoope said. "We need to do more of it, and we need to tell our story."

In Colombia, Scott will lead a delegation of 191 people, the largest of any of his missions, all organized by Enterprise Florida.

The governor will meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley, and will tour a flower farm in Bogota. The trip concludes with a Tuesday evening reception hosted by Holland & Knight, the Tampa law firm with a presence in downtown Bogota.

Holland & Knight also lobbies the Florida Legislature and Scott's executive branch on behalf of various clients, including the city of Tampa, Florida Hospital Association and the Florida Press Association.

Scott's entourage in Colombia also includes: David Armstrong, president of Broward College; Park Brady, CEO of the St. Joe Co., the state's largest real estate developer; former Gov. Bob Martinez, a lobbyist for Holland & Knight; Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo; Miami port director Bill Johnson; Port Everglades CEO Steven Cernak; and Paul Anderson, chief executive of the port of Jacksonville and the leading choice to be Tampa's new port director.

"Having the governor there brings a certain stature to the trip," Buckhorn said. "I think these countries want to know that our government, both local and state, are engaged in this."

Lahnie Johnson, president of Acoustiblok, a Tampa-based maker of soundproofing devices, hopes to open some new doors in Colombia.

"When an esteemed official goes with you, the officials in the other country are bending over backwards to show they are willing to get into the game," Johnson said.

Underscoring Colombia's special significance to the Miami-area economy, 71 members of the Florida traveling party are from Miami-Dade, many of them international finance executives based in Coral Gables.

Times/Herald staff writers Richard Danielson and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report and information from Florida Trend magazine was used. Contact Steve Bousquet at (850) 224-7263.