- George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office confirmed Monday that it has deleted four voicemail messages left on his cellphone by a Broward County nursing home where 11 patients died after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s air conditioning.
The urgency of the messages, which the nursing home left on the phone in the 36 hours before the first patient died, has been a matter of dispute between the governor and the Rehabilitiation Center at Hollywood Hills.
The nursing home — which had its license to operate suspended by the Scott administration last week — says in a court filing that it characterized the lack of air conditioning as “an emergency” in at least one of the messages. But Scott’s office says that when state officials returned each of the Rehabilitation Center’s calls, nursing home representatives never indicated patients were in danger or needed to be evacuated.
CBS 4 in Miami first reported the deletion of the voicemail messages.
“The voicemails on Governor Scott’s personal cell phone were not retained because the 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,” Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said Monday.
“The Governor receives hundreds of voicemails and once acted upon, they are deleted so the voicemail box does not become full, as is the standard practice with anyone operating a cellphone. This practice follows Florida law and the state’s record retention policies,” Schenone said.
She added: “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.”
State guidelines for retaining public records say that most phone messages are considered “transitory messages” that should be preserved until they are “obsolete, superseded, or administrative value is lost.”
Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation said the voicemails could be a valuable public record.
“I don’t think he did anything illegal and I’m not saying the governor is at all culpable in this mess. But just because they could delete them doesn’t mean they have to…It seems to me common sense would say keep these, they’re important,” Petersen said.
The nursing home declined comment.
Irma passed through Broward County on Sunday, Sept. 10. The nursing home did not lose power, but its air conditioning chiller went down about 3 p.m. that day and the facility used eight “spot coolers” as well as fans to keep temperatures down.
The first call to Scott’s cellphone came about 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 and was returned about 9:50 p.m. by Department of Health Chief of Staff Alexis Lambert, according to a timeline released by the governor’s office last week.
“The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills reported issues involving air conditioning but did not, at any time during the call, report or indicate that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk,” Scott’s office said.
The next day, Sept. 12, callers from the Rehabilitation Center left two voice mail messages on Scott’s cell phone that were retrieved at 10:25 a.m. Another voice mail was retrieved at 12:50 p.m., according to the governor’s office timeline.
In one of the messages, Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services CEO Natasha Anderson said she was calling “to report an emergency,” according to a lawsuit by the Rehabilitation Center seeking to block state actions against it.
An AHCA official returned one call to nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo at 4:17 p.m. Sept. 12, the governor’s office said. Another AHCA official called Anderson at 4:41 p.m. According to the governor’s office timeline, both Carballo and Anderson said the nursing home’s “chiller” wasn’t working but that spot coolers and fans were in place. Neither nursing-home official indicated patients were in danger, the governor’s office said.