Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida governor’s flacks perform some very slick editing

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s political operatives tinkered with the results of the Planned Parenthood investigation.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s political operatives tinkered with the results of the Planned Parenthood investigation. Naples Daily News

Surely we journalists, of all people, ought to appreciate the exquisite editing job performed by the governor’s hard-working flacks as they polished up a clunky press release.

All of our careers, editors have been preaching conciseness. “Tighten up that story,” they tell us.

Which is exactly what Rick Scott’s communications staff accomplished after they intercepted a release issued by the Agency for Health Care Administration.

They took a wordy statement explaining the outcome of the Planned Parenthood investigation and excised a few extraneous words, no doubt paying homage to William Shakespeare, who wrote that “brevity was the soul of wit.”

Or, as his fellow wordsmith Rick Scott might have said, “Deletion is the soul of mendacity.”

In July, Scott had sent AHCA investigators after Planned Parenthood, reacting to some surreptitious videos taken in other states that revealed disturbing conversations between Planned Parenthood employees and phony medical company reps -- actually undercover anti-abortion activists -- talking about providing fetal tissue to researchers. (Such transactions would be illegal in Florida.)

The videos had gone viral and the ensuing uproar afforded Gov. Scott, whose political ambitions don’t quite match his lowly public approval ratings, a fine excuse to join the clamorous posse in hot pursuit of the nation’s largest abortion provider.

AHCA inspectors hit all 16 Planned Parenthood clinics in Florida that perform abortions (not bothering with the 50 other licensed abortion clinics in Florida not operated by Planned Parenthood). Last month, the agency summarized the results of the investigation for the press, which, of course, Scott’s political operative decided was in need of editing.

So a certain inconvenient sentence was removed from a press release summing up an investigation into whether fetal remains had been mishandled by those 16 clinics.

Out came: “However, there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state.” Well, you can see how that particular cluster of words might have disrupted the police narrative coming out of the governor’s office.

Emails dug up by Politico and the Herald/Tampa Bay Times Capitol Bureau revealed that the folks over at AHCA found the re-write rather heavy handed. Katherine Riviere, communications director for AHCA, sent out an email to her bosses declaring, “I would have thought a line on no evidence of mishandling of fetal remains would be included as that’s what questions will be on.”

Think again, sucker. Elizabeth Dudek, who heads up the agency, responded, explaining to Riviere that they were pretty well stuck with whatever the governor’s staff wanted. The revision, shorn of the unhappy fact that the state had failed to turn up any actual violations, Dudek wrote, “is what they will okay.”

As Michael Auslen in our Herald/Times bureau reported, AHCA had been warned that any statements concerning Planned Parenthood had to be “run by downtown.” As it turned out, “run by” meant eviscerated by downtown. (Imagine what might have come out of Scott’s office if Moses had run the Ten Commandments by downtown. Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, unless her husband’s away for the weekend. Thou shall keep the Sabbath holy, unless you happen to have a Sunday Park Hopper ticket at Disney. Thou shall not tax idolatry, especially yachts and Italian sports cars.)

The re-written press release was not the only communications mess caused by the governor’s political operatives meddling in the AHCA investigation. Last month, AHCA seemed to have issued two different definitions of a first trimester abortion on consecutive days, both attributed to the agency’s general counsel. Then there was another controversial, misleading press release about abortion practices at three Planned Parenthood clinics that had been attributed to the beleaguered Riviere. Except the emails revealed that it had been ghost-written by the governor’s deputy communications director.

When Michael Auslen asked last week what the hell was going on, the governor’s communications office responded, “Our office often works with our agencies on materials.”

When he asked AHCA for an explanation, the agency responded like a trained parrot. “We often work with the governor’s office on materials.”

Not a lot of substance there, but you have to give them credit for brevity. It was as if Scott’s minions were adhering to John Wayne’s famous adage: “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.”

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