Politics & Government

Scott retreats from statement calling anti-Cuba law unenforceable

Gov. Rick Scott has started retreating from a controversial statement that a Cuba-crackdown bill he signed the day before was unenforceable.

In a written statement, Scott now acknowledges that the law will go into effect. And he reiterated his support for it -- even though he thinks it might not survive a legal challenge.

"Constitutional lawyers have told me that this legislation will be challenged in court. I signed the bill regardless of that fact, and it will

become a state law on July 1, 2012," he wrote. "As governor, it is my sworn duty to uphold the laws of the state and I will meet any challenge to this law in court as necessary."

Scott's move was a peace offering of sorts to Miami's Cuban-American lawmakers, who were incensed Tuesday when he signed the bill into law at the Freedom Tower -- only to issue a letter afterward that suggested the law is unconstitutional.

The law would prohibit state and local governments from hiring companies -- notably Odebrecht, a Brazilian engineering and construction firm that works extensively in South Florida -- whose parent companies or affiliates also do business in Cuba or Syria. Because the state law could affect foreign commerce, Scott said in his Tuesday letter, it needed the approval of Congress and the president.

Scott's letter blindsided the members of Congress and the state Legislature -- all Republicans -- who were never told he would espouse that position. They said the state law was fine and that Scott's letter potentially undermined it because it armed opponents with a potent legal argument if and when they sue.

"It's unfortunate this very ill-conceived statement muddies the waters," U.S. Rep Mario Diaz-Balart said earlier Wednesday, before Scott's latest statement came out.

And regardless of what Scott said in his signing statement, Diaz-Balart and others said, the law would go into effect anyway -- an opinion Scott confirmed Wednesday. Still, the governor's letter hurt almost as much as a veto.

Diaz-Balart acknowledged that Scott's actions damaged the governor's standing in the eyes of many Cuban-Americans, who comprise about 70 percent of the county's registered Republicans. Spanish-language radio was alive with angered callers directing their ire at Scott.

It wasn't just Cuban Americans who were upset. Advocates for a free Syria felt hoodwinked as well.

"We didn't know this was going to happen," said Dr. Bashar Lutfi, a Coral Springs neurologist who attended Tuesday's bill signing. "This was not nice of him."

The governor could have let the bill become law without his signature. Or he could have publicly shared his opinions about the bill's constitutionality at the signing event. Earlier in the day, he mentioned his concerns on Spanish-language radio.

But the throng of politicians eager to play up the crackdown law in an election year apparently did not tune into the radio shows. Instead, they saw the governor sign the bill, leave the Freedom Tower, and then blindside them with the fine-print signing statement.

Just before the event started, one of the bill's sponsors, Hialeah state Sen. Rene Garcia, said he heard Scott discuss some of his concerns with Diaz-Balart near an elevator. Diaz-Balart, who wouldn't comment on his conversation with Scott, saw the governor's talking points.

Diaz-Balart then tried to assure Scott that the state law was allowed under federal law -- that no congressional authorization was needed. Scott took the conversation as an indication that he shouldn't mention the issue at all in his official speech.

So he didn't.

Afterward, in a 12-minute gaggle with reporters, Scott was asked if the state needed to wait for the feds.

"It depends on how you read it," Scott said, stammering. "There are those who read it who say ... we need more federal legislation. So to make sure of that, it would be nice if they did that. There's others who are very comfortable with this -- that it already applies. We'll be looking at that to make sure."

Scott never mentioned the signing letter or the fact that his own office believed that, in his words, "we need more federal legislation." He said he was lobbied to veto the bill. He wouldn't name names. But, Scott acknowledged, he told the head of Odebrecht USA that he'd sign the bill.

Moments after the press conference, Scott issued the signing statement. And then came the anger.

Perplexed state lawmakers who backed the bill went on Spanish-language radio to question the governor's letter. A frustrated Congressman David Rivera declared himself ready to take the governor to court. One blogger in Washington, D.C., referred to the governor as "slick Rick." Another wrote, in an open letter to Scott on a Miami blog, "You duped us."

On Wednesday, Garcia, the bill's Senate sponsor, sent state Senate President Mike Haridopolos a letter asking him to "examine the constitutionality" of the governor's signing statement.

But Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, an early Scott supporter who accompanied the governor on his jaunt to the radio stations Tuesday morning, said some politicians are overreacting.

"I've told them to take a deep breath," he said. "I think the importance of yesterday is being diluted by the letter. The importance of yesterday is, the law is on the books. If there needs to be a federal law to enact it, then there needs to be a federal law."

He added that Scott "didn't skirt the issue on the radio."

"In hindsight," Maroño said, "he probably should have mentioned it in his speech."