Gov. Rick Scott slightly backed away Wednesday from one of his most-widely run attack ads that links Democrat Charlie Crist to a convicted Ponzi-schemer’s crime.
Scott suggested his ad wasn’t really saying that Crist was an active participant in the fraud — but it’s “absolutely true” that Crist, due to his political flip-floppery, “swindled” the narrator in the ad who’s also a victim of Scott Rothstein’s Ponzi scheme.
“This individual was a victim of both Scott Rothstein and Charlie Crist. Both of them promised things, and they didn’t come through,” Scott said of the ad on Wednesday during a Miami campaign stop.
“Charlie said he was a Ronald Reagan Republican. He was against tax increases. He was against raising your tuition. And he did both,” Scott said, repeating variations of the line when reporters sought clarification. “Charlie was a Republican and then an independent then a Democrat.”
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But Scott’s ad, narrated by an anonymous Republican whose identity was unmasked in Wednesday’s Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, has none of that context that the governor mentioned.
The ad never says anything about Ronald Reagan, college tuition or taxes. And it does not say anything about Crist’s party affiliation before he became a Democrat.
Instead, the ad narrated by Fort Lauderdale investor Dean Kretschmar tightly focuses on what most people associate with its title: a “swindle.” Throughout the ad, Kretschmar talks about Rothstein, Crist, political contributions, a disputed allegation about judges for sale and the Ponzi scheme that made some families go “bankrupt.”
Kretschmar was one of those victims. Kretschmar’s investor group, called “Razorback,” was able to recoup most of its losses because it sued deep-pocketed TD Bank, which Rothstein used in the scheme and which Rothstein then turned on.
Kretschmar’s lawsuit never mentioned Crist. Yet Kretschmar says without explanation in his ad: “I got swindled by both Rothstein and Charlie.”
Crist said Wednesday during a stop in Boca Raton that Scott is lying and that the newspaper report detailing Kretschmar’s omissions and exaggerations “exposes the sheer falsehood of that ad.”
In previous campaign stops, the Democrat has said that Scott is trying to distract voters from his record managing Columbia/HCA, which was socked with a Medicare-fraud fine in the 1990s.
Asked if he believed Crist participated in the Ponzi scheme itself, Scott wouldn’t give a yes or a no.
“What I can tell you is the ad speaks for itself," Scott said. "Charlie and Scott Rothstein did the same thing. They took money from somebody and they lied to him.”
Here’s what Crist did as far as “taking money:” he accepted a single, $500 campaign contribution check from Kretschmar in 2006. Crist went on to change political positions and his party affiliation.
Here’s what Rothstein did: oversee a $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme -- the fourth-largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. Rothstein ultimately defrauded scores of investors of $360 million.
In the ad – which Scott has run at least 4,000 times at a cost of about $2 million -- Kretschmar talks about Rothstein and Crist’s relationship, omitting various details and focusing on the convicted Ponzi schemer’s disputed claim that he essentially sold judgeships to Crist in return for campaign money.
Which judges? Kretschmar and Scott won’t say. Nor did Rothstein, now serving a 50-year prison sentence, during court testimony. The claim was under federal investigation after it was first raised in 2009, but no longer.
Crist’s unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign accepted nearly $82,000 from Rothstein and his law firm. Crist, along with many other politicians and charities, wound up returning the money to help make Ponzi victims whole.
Kretschmar references all of the money Crist received from Rothstein and talks about the closeness of the two. Kretschmar, though, never mentions that his own lawyer, Scott donor William R. Scherer, was friends with Rothstein, who considered him a “mentor” and whom Scherer once spoke highly of in 2008 – at the height of the Ponzi scheme and just a year before Kretschmar was duped.
Crist has also stretched the truth when it comes to Rothstein. In a response to Scott's first ad about the relationship between Crist and Rothstein, Crist's campaign said that Scott has "teamed up" with Rothstein. There's no evidence showing that link, and PolitiFact rated the ad False.
Crist does bear some blame for what happened in the scheme, says Chuck Malkus, a Fort Lauderdale public-relations consultant and author of a book about the Rothstein scheme called “The Ultimate Ponzi.”
Malkus points out that the scheme started when Crist was Florida Attorney General, the state’s top prosecutor post. The crime, unbeknownst to the public, continued when Crist became governor in 2007.
Crist then gave Rothstein the veneer of legitimacy by tapping him for a post on a West Palm Beach-based Judicial Nominating Commission, which is in charge of recommending judges to fill vacancies.
Malkus said he couldn’t understand the strategy of the Scott campaign.
On one hand, making disputable and inflammatory statements – especially through an anonymous spokesman – can provoke more media coverage and give the ad a higher profile. But then, Malkus said, that could lead people to distrust Scott and his campaign.
“It causes more questions,” Malkus said. “They could just stick to the facts. There’s no need for exaggeration.”