TAMPA — Several on-duty, uniformed law officers from agencies including the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office participated in a political campaign event Monday in Tampa as part of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election effort, despite Florida laws saying public employees must avoid political activity during working hours.
Spokesmen for two of the agencies involved, the sheriff’s office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, both said their officers attended as result of misunderstandings, thinking they were invited to the event to provide security or that it was an official governor’s office event rather than a campaign event.
A spokeswoman for Scott’s campaign said campaign officials made the nature of the event clear in all their invitations and announcements, but at least some of the law officers present say they didn’t get the message.
One way or another, the situation provided Scott with a line of uniformed law officers standing behind him as local television crews filmed him talking about reductions in crime during his administration.
“All the police departments around here were invited,” said Col. James Previtera of the sheriff’s office when asked why he and other Hillsborough deputies were at the event. He said some of the deputies were on duty and some weren’t. Asked whether it’s routine procedure for deputies to participate in political events during working time, he said, “I don’t know anything about that.”
Sheriff David Gee wasn’t available for comment, but Chief Deputy Jose Docopo said Previtera was unaware the gathering was a political campaign event.
“When he got back he briefed me that to his surprise it was a campaign stop as opposed to just the governor holding a press conference on crime, which is what Col. Previtera understood when he went,” said Docopo. “Under those circumstances neither he nor the deputies would have been there. It is our policy not to attend political events in uniform or on duty.”
Craig Baker, an enforcement officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said he was on duty and attending the event at the order of his captain.
FWC spokeswoman Wendy Purcell said Baker attended because his superiors thought the invitation to the event was a request for an officer to assist the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which normally provides security for the governor.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a Republican, attended and spoke in Scott’s favor, as did Holmes Beach Police Chief William Tokajer. Tokajer said he was attending to represent the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which endorsed Scott Monday.
The event was the kickoff of Scott’s “Let’s Keep Florida Safe” Tour, the latest in a series of statewide tours Scott is holding on various issues. It was held at a store on Adamo Drive that sells law enforcement uniforms and other equipment.
The law officers who didn’t speak at the event stood in a row behind Scott and the other speakers at a podium in the store.
“It’s been publicly advertised as a campaign event to everyone,” including the invitations to law enforcement agencies, Scott campaign spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said of the event.
Florida statute 1094.31 says employees “of the state or any political subdivision may not participate in any political campaign for an elective office while on duty.” The statute says elected officials are exempted.
Spokesmen for the state Division of Elections, Ethics Commission and Elections Commission all either couldn’t comment on whether that law applies to the Monday event.