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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Is Rick Scott the worst governor in the history of Florida?

It’s a question lots of people ask, and the verdict’s still out. The state has had many lousy governors since 1845, when the job first opened.

Scott is certainly a prime contender for worst ever, and each new screwing of Floridians pushes him closer to the title. The latest outrage reveals the fair-weather fiscal conservative reaching deep into public pockets to bail himself out of legal trouble.

During the last few months, taxpayers have been soaked for more than $1 million to settle lawsuits in which Scott and his dim-bulb cabinet flagrantly violated Florida’s open-records and open-meetings laws.

No other sitting governor has used tax money to end public-records cases that were caused by his own secretive misbehavior. Scott couldn’t care less.

He paid off in one case to avoid producing thousands of emails from private Google accounts on which he and staff members conducted public business, against the law. Scott said such accounts didn’t exist, which was a flat-out lie.

The stealth emails came to light in a lawsuit by Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews, who was trying to buy an office building on property that Scott wanted to use as a “legacy park” around the governor’s mansion.

Once Andrews learned about Scott’s undisclosed emails, he pushed hard to obtain them. After a court recently ruled that Google had to turn over all relevant correspondence in the governor’s accounts, Scott quickly decided to settle the case rather than reveal the contents of his messages.

He agreed to pay Andrews $700,000 to end the case.

More accurately, he agreed to pay $700,000 with state funds. The governor personally won’t be writing the check, even though he’s the one who broke the law.

The payout to Andrews is coming out of “grants and donations” in the budget of the governor’s office ($120,000); the Department of State ($60,000); the Attorney General’s office ($75,000); and, most arrogantly, the Department of Environmental Protection ($445,000).

This is the sort of ripoff that vaults Scott to the top of the list when people talk about truly terrible governors. Who else would raid the budget of the agency in charge of safeguarding the environment to pay for a lawsuit that has no environmental angle?

It’s another kick in the teeth for the 4 million Floridians who voted for Amendment 1, believing DEP would use newly designated revenues for the purchase and protection of conservation lands. Nobody dreamed that the governor — even this governor — would loot DEP to pay his own legal bills.

Another case that cost taxpayers a bundle was the firing last December of Gerald Bailey, the widely respected head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Bailey’s dismissal was orchestrated by Scott and retroactively supported by the cabinet.

St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner and several media organizations filed a lawsuit charging that Scott and cabinet members violated Florida’s open-meeting law by terminating Bailey without any open discussion or vote.

Afterward Bailey went public with complaints that the governor and his staff had tried to improperly influence an FDLE criminal investigation and described other incidents of alleged interference.

As we know from past video depositions, Scott isn’t the most credible or polished witness under oath. His aversion to trials is understandable.

Rather than sit still and testify about why Bailey was fired, the governor chose to bail out. Nervous cabinet members were close on his heels.

The Weidner lawsuit was settled in June for $55,000, a fraction of its true cost to taxpayers. At one point more than a dozen private attorneys were working on behalf of Scott and the cabinet, racking up legal fees of about $365,000.

Once again, the governor and his cohorts break the law, and Floridians get hammered with the bill.

You’d never know it from what’s happening today, but Florida actually pioneered the concept of “government in the sunshine.” For a long time, our laws opening records and official meetings to the public were considered models for other states.

Politicians have always tried to weasel around these regulations and do business the old-fashioned way, in backrooms and bars. The new-fashioned method of subversion is texting and emails, a style that suits Scott’s sneaky nature.

It’s still too early to crown him with the title of Worst Governor Ever, but none in modern memory has worked harder to conceal his actions or spent more of the public’s money covering them up.

Scott wants to be remembered for creating jobs, and he will be.

Lots of jobs for lawyers.

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

File photo: Florida governor Rick Scott visits with FWC staff and Commissioners Yablonski and Roberts on November 17, 2014 at the Bryant Building in Tallahassee. (Tim Donovan, Florida Fish & Wildlife/Flickr)