By Caitlin Ostroff
Voicemails left on Florida Gov. Rick Scott's cellphone by employees of the Hollywood, Fla., nursing home where 11 died in the post-Hurricane Irma heat have been deleted, according to the governor's office.
Scott gave out his number to nursing homes and assisted living facilities ahead of the hurricane so administrators could report concerns, according to a timeline released by Scott's office. In the days following Irma, the staff at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills called four times. But the messages they left the governor weren't kept, as first reported by CBS4's Jim DeFede.
"The voicemails were not retained because the information from each voicemail was collected by the governor's staff and given to the proper agency for handling. Every call was returned," Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Scott, said in a statement on Sunday.
The calls would have provided critical evidence for what the nursing home told the governor's office, which has repeatedly said wasn't told residents there were in danger.
Julie Allison, attorney for the nursing home, was traveling Sunday and was unavailable for comment.
So why weren't the voicemails kept?
Scott's office cited them as "transitory messages," which can be deleted after they become obsolete or lose administrative value. According to state law, transitory messages have short-term value. Examples include announcements of office events, such as holiday parties or group lunches.
Scott's office forwarded the content of the messages left by the nursing home to the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Health.
According to a timeline released by the governor's office, the first call was received by Scott's aides at 7:35 p.m. Sept. 11. The chief of staff for the Department of Health returned the call about two hours later, asking administrator Natasha Anderson to call 911 if she believed patients were at risk.
The last call to Scott's cellphone from the rehabilitation center, according to the governor's timeline, was received by aides at 12:50 p.m. Sept. 12. Those calls were returned by state healthcare administrators later that day.
The nursing home, across from Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, lost air conditioning at some point on Sept. 10 after the hurricane sideswiped South Florida. Most of the nursing home had power, but a blown transformer crippled the AC.
Nursing home employees reported having partial power to state health officials, and said they were using spot coolers and fans to keep people cool.
The nursing home didn't report that resident safety was at risk, according to the governor's office. But by 7 a.m. Sept. 13, a tragedy was unfolding.
Most of the elderly residents of the nursing home had been evacuated and at least five were already dead, some with body temperatures as high as 109.9 degrees. By the end of the day, eight were dead, and the death toll has since grown to 11.
On Wednesday night, state health administrators halted new admissions to the nursing home, which has a history of poor inspections by state regulators. On Thursday night, Scott suspended Medicaid payments to the facility. A criminal investigation into the deaths is ongoing.
That inquiry will have to do without the voicemails left on the governor's phone line.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said even if Scott's office was allowed to delete the voicemails, she doesn't see why it would. She considers the records a matter of public concern.
"Why not just keep it? It's bothersome to say the least," she said. "Right now, we're in a he said, she said."
(Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.)
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