Scott lawyer admits he misled high court on railby John Kennedy | April 14th, 2011
In a remarkable admission, Rick Scott’s legal counsel Thursday told the Florida Supreme Court that he misled justices on the amount of money already spent on the state’s high-speed rail project — a key detail that may have helped cinch the governor’s victory in a constitutional tug-of-war.
In a two-page letter to Chief Justice Charles Canady, Scott’s general counsel, Charles Trippe, acknowledged that last month he misrepresented a central fact in arguments supporting the governor’s rejection of $2.4 billion in federal funds for the project linking Tampa with Orlando.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, one of two senators who sued Scott saying he had exceeded his constitutional authority in killing the project, said Thursday evening that Trippe’s letter is a “huge admission.”
“It’s a material misrepresentation of the facts in this case,” Altman said. “We knew (Trippe) was wrong when he said it in court. But we couldn’t stop him from saying it.”
In the letter, Trippe admitted he was wrong when he told justices that $110 million of the $130 million authorized by the Florida Legislature for the project approved in 2009 had already been spent.
Instead, Trippe said only $31 million had actually been spent — a major gap that appears to have shaped the court’s decision that sided with Scott.
Indeed, Justice Barbara Pariente responded to Trippe’s claim during the hearing that Scott’s move against high-speed rail seemed to involve little remaining money. If so, Pariente suggested, the governor was likely empowered to stop the project.
“So the issue (as) to whether his actions affect the $130 million, you would argue — and of course we have very limited to no factual record here — but that is de minimis right now?” Pariente asked.
Trippe agreed, suggesting lawmakers were arguing over a trifling amount of cash.
“It is not only de minimis, but the statute itself provides for a carryover of it by the end of the year if the money hasn’t been spent. So he is not in violation…of this appropriation,” Trippe told the court.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, had joined Altman in the lawsuit, arguing that Scott acted like a “king” in rejecting the Legislature’s directive.
But in a terse, one-page ruling, justices quickly killed the lawsuit following the hearing. They seemed to rely rely heavily on the facts of the project, as presented by Trippe — who now acknowledges he was wrong.
In its ruling, the court wrote, “Based on the limited record before the court and a review of the federal and state law relied on by the parties, the court has determined that the petitioners have not clearly demonstrated entitlement to . . . relief.”
At the time, Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said the governor was “gratified” by the decision. Critics, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, union representatives, and other rail advocates said that killing high-speed rail has cost the state at least 24,000 future jobs.
For his part, Scott has even taken partial credit for helping solve the Congressional budget standoff — by returning the high-speed rail cash to federal coffers.
Now, however, it looks like the ruling may have hinged on a misstatement by a top Scott official.
Trippe blamed the Florida Department of Transportation for giving him bad information, in his letter to Canady.
But Trippe concluded, “Nothing in the course of the court’s questioning or its written order leads me to believe that this error was material to the court’s resolution of the case.”
Trippe added, though, ”If the court requires any further explanation of this matter, I will be happy to provide it.”
Altman said he is still exploring his next step, which could include asking the court for a rehearing.
“The court relied on wrong information,” Altman said. “The governor’s counsel misrepresented the facts.”