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Sunday, December 11, 2016

In theory, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is the state’s elite equivalent of the FBI. In theory, the agency saves its resources for investigating the most serious crimes.

Yet in the Bizarro World created by Gov. Rick Scott, almost nothing in government operates the way it was meant to. Recently the FDLE dispatched an agent to investigate a blogger who had used Beatles lyrics to poke fun at the governor.

The song was not “The Fool on the Hill,” an obvious choice.

Nor was it “Mean Mr. Mustard,” or “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” or “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”

The number in question was the benign and spacey “Magical Mystery Tour,” from the 1967 album of the same name. It was quoted in a Google Plus post by Daniel Tilson, a Democratic activist and frequent critic of Scott.

Tilson was scoffing at a “tax cut calculator” put on display in the Capitol that showed off the piddling $43 that an average Florida family supposedly would save annually from the governor’s proposed tax changes.

“Gov. Scott’s Magical Mystery Tax Cut Calculator,” Tilson called it, adding a line from the original Lennon-McCartney song: “Coming to take you away, take you away…”

Some person at FDLE (an “analyst,” the agency said) eyeballed those words on Tilson’s blog and perceived a potential threat to the governor. Could somebody be plotting to take him away, take him away…?

Not since Charles Manson got mesmerized by “Helter Skelter” has anyone twisted the words of a Beatles song so ludicrously — and Manson, let’s remember, is crazier than an outhouse rat.

Yet the FDLE, the top crime-busting force in Florida, detected possible ominous undertones in the lyrics of “Magical Mystery Tour.” An agent was promptly sent to interview Tilson.

He wasn’t home, so the female agent left a business card. Tilson said that when he called the number, the agent was polite and good-humored, almost apologetic.

And, honestly, you’ve got to feel sorry for her. You train to be a criminal investigator with the expectation that you’ll be out there tackling real crimes, not hassling opponents of a certain politician in power.

After Tilson wrote online about what happened, the FDLE hastily said the matter was closed. Its statement, in part: “Commissioner (Rick) Swearingen is reviewing the incident and believes FDLE could have better evaluated the post…”

You think?

Swearingen is new to the top job, having been hand-picked by Scott. The entire Cabinet is supposed to participate in the appointment process, but that’s not what really occurred.

The governor wanted to get rid of longtime FDLE chief Gerald Bailey and promote his buddy Swearingen, who was once in charge of Scott’s personal security detail.

Bailey later suggested he was canned because he fought pressure from the governor’s office to use the FDLE for political mischief and meddling. Scott denied that, though he conceded he could have handled Bailey’s dismissal more smoothly.

As a result of the fiasco, the governor and all three Cabinet members have hired a raft of pricey lawyers to defend themselves (and the Cabinet as a whole) in a suit charging that the abrupt and murky dismissal of Bailey violated the Sunshine Law.

That landmark statute requires state government to be conducted in the open, a practice that cramps the covert style of Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the other Cabinet members

All their legal fees — possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars — will be covered by taxpayers. The Miami Herald and several major media outlets are among those suing to find out how Bailey got fired.

Meanwhile, Swearingen has said he wasn’t named FDLE commissioner just to be “the governor’s boy,” and vows to walk away from the job if he’s asked to do anything unethical.

Public confidence in the agency’s independence was not bolstered by the misguided “Magical Mystery Tour” probe.

Let’s hope that the FDLE hasn’t opened a permanent Division of Beatles Oversight. Many Floridians who voted for Scott couldn’t be blamed for now humming, “I Should Have Known Better.”

Everybody else is singing “Help!”

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132.)

Photo: Chris Sampson via Flickr