Rick Scott: His chickens come home to roost

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How Rick Scott’s media stonewall is just the latest antic of America’s most contemptible governor

If states really are the laboratories of America’s democracy, then Florida under Governor Rick “I’m not a scientist” Scott could be in deep trouble.

That’s according to a panel of scientists from the state’s leading universities, who sent the Governor a letter asking for half an hour of his time so they could explain the issue of climate change to him. Their outreach reflects a growing sense of alarm from the scientific community over the Governor’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change, and in particular his fallback on the line “I’m not a scientist” when pressed on whether the increasingly dire warnings concern him.

“We note that you have been asked several times about how you, as Governor, will handle the issue of climate change,” the group of professors from the University of Miami, Florida State, and Florida International University among others wrote in their letter to the Governor. “You have responded that you are ‘not a scientist.’”

“We are scientists,” the acclaimed scientists asserted. “And we would like the opportunity to explain what is at stake for our state.”

And after an initial denial of their request followed by some backtracking, the scientists may get their wish. Rick Scott’s office announced last week that it would make time in the Governor’s schedule for the meeting, though an official date for it still hasn’t been scheduled.

But even if a meeting takes place, recent events suggest that the scientists will have a hard time getting Scott to drop his “I’m not a scientist” deflection and admit the gravity of the situation, no matter how clearly and concisely they present the case for taking strong and immediate action to curb carbon emissions in Florida.

There’s a reason, after all, that the “I’m not a scientist” line has become a hit in GOP circles, most recently being used by Scott’s fellow Florida Republican Marco Rubio and John Boehner himself. The four words are the perfect refuge for politicians caught between a barrage of scientific findings and a Tea Party that will bring them a world of political hurt if they recognize that global warming exists. It lets them avoid acknowledging climate change, therefore saving themselves from Tea Party backlash, without making any outright denials that would seem loony to mainstream America.

But there’s another reason that the line holds special appeal to Scott. It’s the perfect fact-dodge, and evasions like that have become Rick Scott’s hallmark as Governor.

Scott’s avoidance of tough questions dates back to at least October 2000, when he was called in for a deposition in a federal investigation. The businessman’s chain of hospitals, Columbia/HCA, was suspected of over-billing both its patients and the federal government for medical tests that were either deemed unnecessary, or never actually took place. Under oath, the future governor gave answers to the questioning that were peppered with hedges. “I don’t recall.” “What’s your definition of overcapacity?” “I’m not sure I understand.” “It looks like my signature… But what’s your question?”

At one point in the two-hour-long deposition, the former chairman and CEO incredibly claimed to have no idea what the average occupancy rate for his hospitals could be.

John Cornyn official portrait. (Wikipedia)
John Cornyn official portrait. (Wikipedia)

Rick Scott pleaded the Fifth no fewer than 75 times in that investigation. He avoided being charged with a crime when Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, the future chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, declined to prosecute him. And long before his company pleaded guilty to 14 corporate felonies and agreed to pay out $1.7 billion in fines for its Medicare fraud, Rick Scott jumped ship with a golden parachute, agreeing to resign from the position of Chairman and CEO in exchange for a $9.88 million settlement and shares of the company’s stock totaling over $350 million in value.

It was the largest penalty a company has ever had to pay for Medicare fraud to that date. But the CEO and Chairman was allowed to walk away from his old company with lined pockets – and even more importantly, his freedom. And as he ramped up his own political involvement over the next ten years, it would become clear that the ex-CEO had his eye on even bigger and better things.

But the 14 felonies his company had admitted to would be an anvil around his neck in any campaign, especially a senior-heavy state like Florida with so many residents who count on Medicare. In Scott’s 2010 gubernatorial debate with his opponent Alex Sink, Tampa Bay Times journalist Adam Smith put the question perfectly:

“A company you led, as we all know, paid a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud. Either you knew about the major problems in the company, or you were ignorant… How do either of those alternatives make you qualified to be governor of this state?”

Rick Scott responded by professing his innocence to an unrelated crime he had been accused of concerning insider trading. He spent his sixty-second response time trumpeting how the insider trading charge had been “completely dismissed.”

But the moderator was quick to remind him about the unanswered question.

Governor Rick Scott (Wikipedia)
Governor Rick Scott

“Well,” Scott replied, “we built a great company, I started it with my life savings, my wife’s and my life’s saving of $125,000. Over 9 years we took the company up to 340 – ”

“We’ve heard that, though you’ve said that already,” Smith interjected. “So explain to me how it went so wrong.”

“Sure,” Scott said. “Well, one thing you learn, what I focused on, was I focused my efforts on making sure patients were taken care of. I reduced the costs of health care, outcomes were better. I clearly could have done a better job of hiring more internal and external auditors to have done a better job in making sure the company completely complied with the Medicare regs. So the lesson I’ve learned is, you have to broaden your focus, you do what Ronald Reagan said, trust but verify, and that’s what I bring to the table.”

Ah, so his record-setting fine for Medicare fraud was just a learning experience! Maybe that was why he made no apology, only an assertion that as great as his company had been, he could have done something to make it even better. And in good Tea Party fashion, he managed to tie it all back to Ronald Reagan.

Most Floridians caught their first glimpse of Rick Scott’s slippery nature with that debate exchange. And there would be many more to come when Rick Scott eked out a plurality victory in a midterm election that was defined by economic anguish and miserable turnout. The most devastating example came in the closing phase of the 2012 election.

Rick Scott and his legislative majority had barely had time to convene in Tallahassee before they got to work deciding how many more barriers should be thrown in the paths of people who wanted to vote. He ordered a purge of the voter rolls, ostensibly so that some non-citizens could be removed. But thousands of eligible and registered voters saw their names wrongly removed, among them a 91 year-old WWII veteran named Bill Internicola. Scott also signed a bill slashing the number of early voting days in the state from 14 to six, despite the fact that Florida suffers from epic lines at poll stations every four years.

Charlie Crist (Wikipedia)
Charlie Crist (Wikipedia)

The results were predictable. The lines at the polls were even longer than they had been in 2008, when then-Governor Crist issued an executive order to extend the early voting hours. In Southern Florida on election night, tens of thousands were still waiting in line to vote when polls closed at 7 p.m.

The lines were still there well past midnight, after Romney had already conceded. At 1:52 a.m., as President Obama gave his victory speech, people were still voting in the heavily Democratic Miami-Dade county.

In a way it was inspiring that so many people were willing to spend five, six, seven, and even eight hours standing in line to vote. But it was also hugely depressing that they had to. And it left the man who had slashed the hours for early voting with some explaining to do two days later, when the election in Florida was finally called.

Tony Pipitone, a reporter with WKMG Local 6 in Orlando asked Rick Scott if cutting the early voting days and refusing to extend voting hours under the emergency had been a mistake.

“I’m very confident the right thing happened,” Scott replied with a steely smile.

When pressed again by the reporter, Rick Scott turned and walked away.

An study conducted using data on voting behavior obtained by the Orlando Sentinel would later conclude that approximately 201,000 Floridians had been deterred from voting by the multi-hour waits. But Rick Scott will never acknowledge that his elimination of eight days of early voting contributed to the problem. And his evasions have continued to pile up in the two years since.

Just this month, he was pressed about his campaign’s illegal use of on-duty police officers as a backdrop at a campaign rally. Many of the officers had thought they were being sent to the rally to provide security, which would have been legitimate. But using the officers on the stage behind Scott as a backdrop at an election rally was a violation of Florida election law. When asked repeatedly about whether his campaign had acted appropriately, Scott would only reply that he was “very appreciative of their support and everyone who comes to my events.”

In the minute-long clip of the exchange that earned the Governor scorn from national news outlets as it went viral, it was clear that Scott had outdone himself in a long history of brazen fact-dodging. What’s puzzling is why he thought he could get away with it, when his ridiculous non-answers attracted far more attention than the violation of election law itself.

After watching politicians for a while, it’s possible to gain a little insight into their mannerisms. Phonies and hustlers who repeatedly find themselves in the hot seat are especially prone to developing a signature quirk that reveals the fear and desperation that they’re feeling. For Rick Scott, the dead giveaway is his smile.

Crist is upsetting his own GOP base. (Screenshot)
Crist is upsetting his own GOP base. (Screenshot)

It’s a forced grin that doesn’t reach his eyes, which stare straight ahead while blinking far less than normal and give his skull-faced appearance an almost reptilian look. The grin during his questioning on Florida’s policemen made for a visual that may have been even more devastating than the audio of Scott’s Siri-like responses, proof to viewers everywhere that this was a politician who just wanted the questions to be over.

The irony is that in the process of shutting out the media and trying to put a veil over his past, his mistakes, and his true intentions, Rick Scott has revealed to Floridians exactly who he is. His serial evasions are a part of his identity, but not the whole picture. His actions since arriving in Tallahassee make up the rest of it.

Combine all of his dodging with his denial of expanded Medicaid to 800,000 Floridians, his ignoring the reality of climate change, and his dismissal of the election disaster zone that Florida became in 2012, and a chilling picture emerges. It’s a picture of a governor who displays all the caring and empathy of an automaton, slashing the programs and protections for Florida’s most vulnerable people. It’s the personality of a profit-driven CEO zealot who would earn every word of the Tampa Bay Times editorial titled “If Gov. Rick Scott Only Had a Heart.”

Currently trailing in the polls but not by an insurmountable margin, Rick Scott may yet be given another four years to continue his brand of corporate-style governance in Florida. But there’s a kind of unspoken agreement among national Republicans that the governor has no future in national politics. Rick Scott may be a governor in a must-win swing state, but no Republican strategists have come knocking on his door. This has been true since 2012, when Mitt Romney shunned the governor who was sporting approval ratings of under 40 percent in favor of campaigning with more popular elected officials in Florida.

It’s a sharp contrast with Charlie Crist, who was in high demand in Florida in 2008 as John McCain wrapped himself around the confident and popular governor. Crist was even considered as a potential running mate, but no vetting would be necessary for Governor Scott. His well-publicized past makes him a non-starter for any presidential campaign. It’s only natural that no one asks a figure as flawed as this governor to run, as the head of the Republican Governors Association himself noted in an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood.

“If you really stink, they don’t ask,” Chris Christie said simply. “If you’re terrible, no one’s asking.”