FLORIDA -- (WTVY) Progressive activists on Monday called for an investigation into whether Gov. Rick Scott illegally deleted voicemails left on his cell phone by the administrator of the South Florida nursing home where more than a dozen seniors died amid sweltering conditions in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
The voicemails, which the administrator of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills said warned the governor that the nursing home's air conditioning had failed and that an evacuation would be needed, were transcribed by Scott's staff at the state Emergency Operations Center in the hours following Irma's landfall last month. An evacuation, however, was slow in coming, a delay that turned out to be deadly.
Standing outside Scott's Capitol office, the activists representing the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans demanded that Tallahassee-area State Attorney Jack Campbell open a probe to determine if the governor violated the Sunshine Law by destroying the voicemails.
"We need our state attorney to read the letter we sent him and to act on it and investigate the lack of transparency, the lack of heeding the call of these nursing homes," said FLARA board member Barbara DeVane.
In drafting its letter to Campbell, the group enlisted the help of Mark Herron, a Tallahassee election law attorney versed in the Sunshine Law. Because Scott gave nursing home administrators his cell phone number and specifically requested that they call him should they have a storm-related emergency, Herron says the voicemails were public records.
"He could have said, 'you should have called the Ghostbusters'," Herron joked. "But, unfortunately, he asked for this information to be transmitted to him."
It now appears, though, that Scott didn't intend for his phone to be a clearinghouse for nursing home pleas.
"Any health care professional that thinks calling an elected official’s cell phone instead of 911 when people are in need should not be allowed to have any access to patients," Scott said in a statement after his administration suspended the Rehabilitation Center's state license.
The controversy over Scott's handling of the nursing home deaths tragedy has taken on political contours as the governor eyes a 2018 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by three-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott's optics-oriented staff had gone to great lengths to project the governor as a storm-hardened emergency manager, only to see much of that effort undercut by the deaths.
"We're talking to all of our nursing homes, our ALFs, because they're trying to make sure they have the power to take care of their citizens," the governor told reporters at the state Emergency Operations Center the day after the storm, just as the crisis at the Rehabilitation Center was about to peak.
Scott's office contends there is no contradiction between the governor's public statements and the way the voicemails were handled.
"In each instance, the calls were promptly returned by state officials, and the voicemails were immediately deleted so the voicemail box had room for more incoming messages. In none of these calls did the staff indicate that any of their patients were in danger," the governor's office said in a statement.
But Scott's critics disagree about the nature of the voicemails, which is one reason they say they shouldn't have been deleted.
"They were giving the governor's office knowledge of what was occurring down there," Herron said. "They were asking for help consistent with the governor's invitation to ask for that help."