In a new television ad, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer airs another beef with Florida’s millionaire Gov. Rick Scott and his campaign cash. But the 30-second ad mashes up various bits of information about Scott, painting a misleading picture.
NextGen Climate, a deep-pocketed, pro-environmental group that is largely targeting Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections, is using the ad released on Aug. 22 to focus attention on a controversial oil drilling project in Collier County.
"The Collier family, owners of the company that leased their land for oil exploration to the drillers that threatened drinking water for seven million Floridians. Rick Scott took $200,000 from them and now he is trying to hide from it. Sound familiar?"
At that point, the screen shows a photo of Scott while the text states, "He took the 5th 75 times."
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The ad then replays video footage of Scott at a legal deposition saying, "I don’t recall. I have no idea. What’s your question?"
Much of this material has been aired before. PolitiFact Florida previously fact-checked a NextGen ad about that $200,000 donation (rating it Half True) and a Florida Democratic Party ad about Scott taking the 5th 75 times (rating it Mostly True). We also fact-checked a portion of the current ad that claims that Scott is "trying to hide from" the Collier donations rating it Half True.
But the new, 30-second ad is novel in how it weaves these arguments together.
Here we will explain how the creators’ editing decisions and the ad’s overall atmospherics mixes two entirely separate issues -- a drilling project and Scott’s depositions -- to create a bold but flawed criticism of the governor.
Collier family and the drilling project
First, some background about the drilling project and the Collier family. It takes place in Collier County, which is in Southwest Florida and includes Naples, where Scott lives.
The Collier family has been integral to the county’s history; Memphis-born millionaire Barron Gift Collier introduced paved roads, electric power, telegraphs and new businesses and homeowners to the area. Collier acquired 1.3 million acres in the 1920s and oil was later discovered there.
In 2012, Collier Resources Co. leased about 120,000 acres of mineral rights to Dan A. Hughes.
Despite residents’ protests -- including in front of Scott’s home -- the state Department of Environmental Protection in September 2013 granted Hughes a permit to inject acid deep underground to fracture the limestone. The process is similar to hydraulic fracking, which has been the subject of heated debate across the country, although the specific technique used in this case is known as "acid stimulation."
Hughes wanted to try a procedure that hadn’t been allowed in Florida in the past. After injecting the acid, Hughes workers would inject a mix of sand and chemical gel under pressure to prop open the new fractures and let the oil flow out. In December 2013, Hughes went ahead and used that procedure even though DEP had asked it to hold off.
That led the department to fine Hughes and later file a lawsuit, which Hughes is fighting. The Colliers and Hughes have also agreed to call off the lease.
The Collier family is not a party to the lawsuit. Neither is Scott in a personal capacity. "To our knowledge, Gov. Scott is not personally involved in the lawsuit at this time," Hughes spokesman David Blackmon told PolitiFact Florida.
In a previous ad, NextGen alleged that Scott took $200,000 in campaign contributions from a company that "profited off pollution."
It’s true that four members of the Collier family -- Barron, Miles, Parker and Thomas -- each gave $50,000 to Scott’s Let’s Get to Work Committee in January 2013. But that ad earned a Half True rating because it didn’t clarify that the donations came from the Colliers -- not from Hughes -- and that there is not yet proof of pollution.
The newest NextGen ad takes this dispute a step further, saying that Scott not only took the donations but that "he is trying to hide from it."
That’s a reference to the Scott campaign’s argument that it didn’t take donations from Hughes. "In fact, no political entity associated with Governor Scott has ever received contributions from the company – in this election or 2010," Scott campaign spokesman Matt Moon said. The Republican Party of Florida offered a similar response in an ad.
The Republican responses were partially accurate, but also evasive. It’s true that Hughes didn’t donate to Scott, the response omitted that the Colliers -- the landowners who leased the land so Hughes could drill -- did donate to Scott. (You can read more of our analysis about whether Scott was trying to hide from the donations in our fact-check.)
At this point, the ad segues into footage of Scott seemingly being evasive during legal depositions. This is where the ad takes significant liberties.
Seeing deposition footage immediately after discussion of the drilling dispute would suggest to most viewers that the depositions referred to that case. But they don’t -- they date back to an entirely different judicial battle that Scott was involved in.
In 1997, federal agents revealed that they were investigating the Columbia/HCA hospital chain -- of which Scott was CEO -- for Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
Scott said he wanted to fight the federal government accusations, but the corporate board of Columbia/HCA wanted to settle. Scott resigned, and the company later pleaded guilty to corporate felonies and paid $1.7 billion in fines.
In 2000, Scott gave one deposition in which he invoked the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 75 times. The amendment states that no one "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."
But that deposition not only wasn’t part of the drilling dispute it wasn’t even part of the criminal fraud case against HCA. Rather, it was in a civil case about Columbia/HCA and a communications contract.
In addition, the ad video clip of Scott testifying on March 17, 1995 relates to his deposition in an anti-trust case filed against Columbia/HCA by Orlando Regional Healthcare System, which lost the suit against Columbia/HCA but prevailed against another party, according to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.
Savvy viewers may recall this footage from previous campaign ads and news coverage, and would know the difference. In addition, the text on the screen gives some indication of the time difference, because it cites news clips and campaign finance data from 2014 and deposition video clips that are time-stamped 1995. And the narration throws in a phrase -- "Sound familiar?" -- presumably meant to signal a shift from present to past.
However, these clues are subtle are easy to overlook. Moreover, the ad doesn’t make clear when Scott took the 5th. It was 2000, long before the drilling dispute arose.
In other words, through careful editing, the ad implies that Scott was involved in questionable dealings about drilling, then proceeded to evade questioning in legal depositions related to that case. That’s not what happened -- the depositions were for unrelated cases from many years earlier. Ultimately, the ad throws up a sequence of dark allegations and proceeds to connect the dots -- dots that aren’t really related.
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