TALLAHASSEE — Brian Burgess, the combative communications director for the Republican Party of Florida, is returning to the private sector less than five months after taking over as the party's top communicator.
Burgess would not return emails or telephone calls, but was shown the door at the party after he did not answer questions from the Tampa Bay Times about a rescued Labrador retriever adopted by Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott publicly adopted the dog during the 2010 campaign and held a contest to name it — people chose Reagan — but Scott returned the dog shortly after taking office in 2011.
The resulting publicity outraged animal lovers across the state who accused Scott of adopting the dog as a campaign gimmick.
Burgess, 42, will be joining Brian Hughes, former spokesman for the party, at Meteoric Media Strategies, a private public relations business. Hughes and Burgess worked together in Scott's office shortly after Scott was elected governor and during the 2010 campaign. Hughes announced the new partnership in a statement to the Florida Times-Union Tuesday shortly after the Times asked Burgess for comment on his dismissal from the party.
Hughes' firm has consulting contracts with the Republican Party of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other conservative groups. He has been paid more than $195,000 for campaign work since 2010, including $92,000 from the state party.
Burgess began working for the state party in September after 18 months working in the governor's office. Burgess previously worked for a Washington public relations firm that handled communications for Scott's gubernatorial campaign. He has a history of clashing with reporters — in public and in private — and was once called "an aggressive knife-fighter" by a prominent Florida communications consultant.
"I really don't miss some of you dips---- at all," Burgess emailed a Kansas reporter in 2008, after he left to work with a conservative public relations firm in Virginia. "Have fun in your world of make-believe."
As the governor's top spokesman, Burgess publicly lambasted reporters for the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald when they asked Scott why he included $370 million in federal stimulus money in the state budget in 2011 after repeatedly attacking the stimulus package as wasteful government spending.
Burgess objected to the reporters asking the governor about it rather than talking to him first.
"You're unprofessional and engage in 'gotcha' journalism w/o fact-checking," Burgess tweeted to Herald reporter Marc Caputo.
"You ducked the question for a 2nd time: Name 1 fact that was wrong," Caputo replied.
In the case of Reagan, Burgess said he was working on an answer to a reporter's questions but never provided one.
Five days after Burgess and other Scott staffers refused to respond to questions about the dog, Scott answered questions about the puppy himself, saying he had returned the dog to a Naples dog groomer after it frightened mansion staff. Later his staff produced an incident report with details of a dog bite suffered by a mansion groundskeeper.
Although the Naples groomer will not respond to questions about Reagan's fate, she reportedly told a Tampa television reporter that the dog has been renamed Pluto and is living on a horse ranch in South Florida.
Some time after flying Reagan back to Naples, Scott adopted a 7-year-old dog from a couple in New Jersey suffering from cancer. Melissa Sellers, communications director for Scott, said the new dog was located by an old family friend of the governor's who lived in Connecticut.