Florida's governor may have broken the state's famously liberal public records laws by deleting several pleas for help from a nursing home where 11 died due to a power outage after Hurricane Irma.
Gov. Rick Scott had given out his personal cellphone number to emergency responders and officials at the Hollywood Hills facility before the massive storm hit. In the midst of the crisis, officials left four voicemails on that phone—messages the Republican governor later deleted in possible violation of state "Sunshine Law."
"The whole point of our records laws is to allow us to oversee our governor and hold him accountable," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "We don't have this oversight and accountability because the records have been destroyed."
The law requires public documents to preserved, but Scott's office focused on a part of a policy that allows certain voicemail messages to be deleted if they only hold “short-term” value and are categorized as a “transitory message," according to the Miami Herald.
But critics said Scott should have followed the broader guideline that voice messages must be kept until “obsolete, superseded or administrative value is lost”—something that might not apply in this scenario, as a criminal investigation is still under way.
The calls were made after the nursing home, located 20 miles north of Miami, lost power to its air-conditioning after the hurricane, creating a hotbox for aging residents, 11 of which eventually died. The nursing home pleaded for help as the sweltering conditions worsened. They also called the electric company and other officials for help but did not evacuate patients or call 911 until it was too late.
The governor's office also claimed the messages were not kept because Scott "receives hundreds of voicemails," and they are "deleted so the voicemail box does not become full, as is the standard practice with anyone operating a cellphone."
"Information from each voicemail was collected by the governor’s staff and given to the proper agency for handling in accordance with Florida law. Every call was returned," said Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Scott. "None of this changes the fact that this facility chose not to call 911 or evacuate their patients to the hospital across the street to save lives."
Peterson said that deleting the records might have been legal, but she still questioned Scott's motive, calling the given explanation "baloney."
"It doesn't make any sense for him to delete these records," she said. "Why not just keep them? It's definitely troubling."
Last week, the nursing home was accused of falsifying medical records of patients, including stating that a patient was in bed and breathing as normal when that patient had already died.
The home’s license was revoked after the deaths of the patients, who ended up in the hospital with body temperatures from 107 to 109.9 degrees: “far too late to be saved,” according to the state.
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