By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In an unusual move, Attorney General Pam Bondi on Sunday publicly criticized Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen for not pursuing an investigation into alleged irregularities in the handling of election ballots in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Bondi’s office released a two-page letter rooted, at least in part, in Gov. Rick Scott’s controversial statement Thursday night that he was asking the FDLE to investigate irregularities. Scott is locked in a fierce election battle to try to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, while also teaming with Bondi and other members of the state Cabinet to oversee the FDLE.
An FDLE spokeswoman said Friday that the agency was working with the Florida Department of State “and will investigate any allegations of criminal activity or fraud. We do not have an active investigation at this point.”
Bondi wrote in her letter Sunday to Swearingen that she was “deeply troubled” and that his “duty is not limited to investigating allegations made by the secretary of state.” She also said FDLE had pointed to a lack of a written complaint in deciding not to pursue an investigation.
“I fail to see how the Florida Department of Law Enforcement can legitimately refuse to investigate where there is reasonable suspicion that may lead to the discovery of criminal actions in the conduct of the 2018 election — actions that gravely damage Floridians’ confidence in our electoral process and democracy,” Bondi’s letter said.
An FDLE spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email Sunday seeking comment.
Scott drew criticism from Democrats after he said he was asking FDLE to investigate the actions of Broward and Palm Beach officials in an election that will determine his political future. Marc Elias, an attorney for Nelson, said Florida is “not a Third World dictatorship.”
Bondi’s letter Sunday came a day after Secretary of State Ken Detzner formally ordered statewide recounts in the races for U.S. senator, governor and agriculture commissioner. The margins in each of the races tightened by tens of thousands of votes as elections officials continued counting ballots after Tuesday night’s initial results.
Republicans, led by Scott’s campaign, have filed a series of lawsuits and argued that election fraud has occurred in Democrat-heavy Broward and Palm Beach counties. Democrats, meanwhile, have contended that Republicans are trying to prevent every vote from being counted and say allegations of fraud are baseless.
Bondi also sent a letter Sunday to Detzner requesting that he report any “suspicion of criminal activity” to FDLE, the statewide prosecutor and a state attorney. The statewide prosecutor works for Bondi.
Meanwhile, Scott’s campaign filed lawsuits in Broward and Palm Beach counties seeking orders for the county sheriff’s offices and the FDLE to impound voting machines, tallying devices and ballots when they are not being used.
Scott led Nelson by fewer than 14,000 votes in unofficial results Saturday, out of nearly 8.2 million votes cast. Counties face a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline for reporting the results of “machine” recounts to the state. At that point, races with margins of .25 percent or less will go to manual, or “hand,” recounts.
Sarah Revell, a Detzner spokeswoman, said Sunday that Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher has indicated her county might not be able to meet the Thursday machine-recount deadline because of the age of the county’s equipment.
“The deadlines for submitting the results of the recount are laid out in Florida law and the law does not give the secretary of state any authority to grant extensions,” Revell said in an email. “Florida law clearly states that if a county does not submit their results by the deadline then the results on file at that time take their place.”
— News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.