Activist groups deliver nursing home petition to Florida House, Senate leaders

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, November 06, 2017, 9:17 PM EST

Progressive activists delivered 12,000 petitions to the leaders of the state House and Senate Monday, calling on them to convene legislative inquiries 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.

  • Voicemails warned that nursing home's A/C system had failed
  • State Attorney General declined to probe incident last month
  • Activists admit new tactic faces much longer odds

The voicemails, which the administrator of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills says 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.

In deleting the voicemails, the activists said the Scott administration could have been attempting to cover up its complicity in the tragedy.

"It shows the callousness of Governor Rick Scott when it comes to the frailest, most vulnerable old people, and the disabled, that are in our nursing homes," said Barbara DeVane of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, one of the groups that sponsored the petitions.

Last month, the governor's critics asked Tallahassee-area State Attorney Jack Campbell to open a probe into the incident. Campbell declined, calling the voicemails 'transitory' under Florida's Sunshine Law and thus not covered by prohibitions on deleting official correspondence.

In turning to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron for action, the activists are facing what even they admit are much longer odds that their request will be granted. The two leaders are, like Scott, Republicans, and will be dependent on his signature to secure many of their priorities during the upcoming legislative session.

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.

"It matters, because we need to know that they called and he did not answer the call," DeVane said.