Orlando Sentinel by Gray Rohrer
September 25, 2017
Gov. Rick Scott’s staff might have broken the law when it deleted voicemails left by workers at a Hollywood nursing home where 11 residents died after Hurricane Irma, a South Florida lawmaker says.
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, who represents the district that includes the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills where the deaths occurred, says erasing the voicemails could be a violation of state public records laws.
“Clearly, there is significant content and purpose behind those voicemails,” said Farmer, a trial attorney. “They go to a matter that is in controversy right now, which is who did what when and why with regard to the emergency situation at this nursing home.”
Scott gave his personal cellphone number to nursing homes and assisted living facilities as Irma approached, but the four messages they left the governor weren’t kept, as first reported by CBS4’s Jim DeFede.
Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone pointed to state rules on handling of public records, which note that “transitory” information, such as scheduling for meetings and “most telephone messages,” can be deleted after their short-term value is lost.
“The voicemails were not retained because the information from each voicemail was collected by the governor’s staff and given to the proper agency for handling. Every call was returned,” Schenone wrote in an email Monday. “The Governor receives hundreds of voicemails and once acted upon, they are deleted so the voicemail box does not become full, as is the standard practice with anyone operating a cellphone. This practice follows Florida law, and the state’s record retention policies.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a public records advocacy group, said she doesn’t think Scott acted illegally, but added the voicemails could have backed up his story.
“Just because they could delete them doesn’t mean they should delete them,” Petersen said. “These were important; people died.”
Eight residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died Sept. 13, after stewing for three days in sweltering heat when Irma knocked out power and air-conditioning to 6.7 million homes and businesses across the state. Three more have died since.
The deaths have spurred criminal investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Hollywood Police Department, as well as administrative reviews by state health care regulators.
But Farmer, who initially called for an FDLE probe, now wants a U.S. attorney to look into the matter because he doesn’t trust Scott’s administration.
“The governor has now inserted himself squarely in this dispute, and he may have done away with very material evidence of the dispute,” Farmer said. “The veracity of his office and his various departments and agencies are now in question.” [READ MORE]