Florida voters misled with half-truths in gubernatorial campaign

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No matter who wins Florida’s brawl for governor there may be one clear loser: The truth.

In the lead up to the Nov. 4 election, voters have been hit with a barrage of television ads that so far have totaled as much as $50 million with still more to come.

In those ads, as well as on the campaign trail, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic rival Charlie Crist have engaged in a stream of misstatements, half-truths and distortions.

Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said candidates have good reasons to mislead voters. In a state where millions of people will vote, there’s a good chance that many people don’t have time to delve into whether a candidate is fudging the facts.

“More people are going to see the 30-second ad than read the fine print,” Smith said. “The fact of the matter is those messages resonate and they stick with the voters.”

The toll of the negative ads is likely a key reason that recent polls have shown that many voters find Scott and Crist untrustworthy. Yet the ads keeping coming.

Some of the misleading information includes:

— An ad from Republicans said Crist is responsible for letting one of Florida’s largest power companies charge customers for nuclear power plants that were never built. The nuclear cost recovery fee was created while Gov. Jeb Bush was in office. The ad makes it sound as if Scott stopped the fee and “protected ratepayers.” That’s not quite true either. Scott signed a bill that altered how long the fee can be collected, but it didn’t eliminate the fee nor did it require power companies to refund any of the money.

— During an Orlando campaign appearance and again during their first debate, Crist ripped into Scott for invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to answer questions 75 times “during the federal criminal investigation” into Scott’s former health care company. The probe resulted in a $1.7 billion fine to settle allegations of Medicare fraud. Scott pleaded the Fifth during a lawsuit deposition unrelated to the criminal investigation.

— Crist has repeatedly blamed Scott for signing a bill that he says deregulated Florida’s insurance industry. The bill Scott signed, however, dealt only with health insurance, but Crist has linked the legislation to property insurance hikes he says have happened under Scott’s watch.

— Scott’s new hard-hitting ad that calls Crist a “corrupt politician” by citing his ties to people convicted of crimes, including calling convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein his “biggest donor.” While Rothstein and his law firm gave large donations to the GOP of Florida when Crist, as a Republican, preceded Scott as governor, there were plenty of other donors. That same ad also links Crist to a failed economic development deal involving Digital Domain, a movie special effects company. The ad quotes a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Scott administration that called the deal a “de facto Ponzi scheme.” But the ad doesn’t note that Scott’s own inspector general concluded that no laws were broken.

One of the most notable ads featured a Rothstein victim saying he had been swindled by both Rothstein and Crist. The Scott campaign initially refused to disclose any information about the ad, including the victim’s identity.

The Miami Herald identified the man as a Fort Lauderdale investor, but reported he never made any allegations about Crist in his successful lawsuit to recover millions of dollars in Rothstein-related losses. Dean Kretschmar — represented by an attorney who’s a major Scott backer — recouped most of the $8 million he personally gave Rothstein as part of an investment group.

After the Herald noted the ad’s misleading nature, the Scott campaign maintained that Crist swindled Kretschmar and other campaign donors because he switched parties and changed his political stances, which was never mentioned in the ad.

The candidates themselves aren’t apologizing or even acknowledging misleading statements.

“I’m going to tell the truth and be straight with the people of Florida because he isn’t,” Crist said.

Asked whether his own statements on Scott’s Fifth Amendment actions were misleading, Crist replied “not at all. Because the way you answer questions in a civil or criminal deposition can be used either in a civil or criminal action.”

Scott’s campaign did not make him available to the AP for this story. Greg Blair, a campaign spokesman, defended running the ads that mentioned Rothstein, but didn’t directly answer questions about some of the distortions and half-truths.

“If all you can do is plead ignorance when your friends like Scott Rothstein – who bragged about his ability to buy access to Crist and influence judicial appointments – end up in prison for crimes committed under your nose, you’re either corrupt or incompetent,” Blair said in an email. “In Charlie’s case, it seems to be both.”

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.