Scott’s re­quest for crim­i­nal in­quiry on bal­lots falls flat

Crit­ics say the gov­er­nor is blur­ring the lines of law en­force­ment and pol­i­tics.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY STEVE BOUS­QUET AND NI­CHOLAS NEHAMAS

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 press con­fer­ence 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 in­ves­ti­ga­tion. 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 the 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.)

As­so­ci­ated Press

At a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day, Gov. Rick Scott asked that the Florida Depart­ment of Law En­force­ment in­ves­ti­gate the op­er­a­tions of Brenda Snipes, right, Broward County’s su­per­vi­sor of elec­tions.

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