Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Who's paying for Mike Haridopolos' video attack?

Mike Haridopolos' video message is being criticized by Democrats as overly political.

Democrats are barking at Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos for a one-minute video he posted Aug. 29, 2011, on the Senate's website called "Something Different is Happening in Florida."

Unlike other videos on his Senate YouTube channel, which usually tout weekly legislative accomplishments, this message does not feature Haridopolos talking.

Instead it opens with a woman's pained voice playing over a slideshow of images, including a seemingly distressed President Barack Obama and investors, and stock photos showing unemployed people and a foreclosure sign. The video tells of the country's debt-rating downgrade by Standard & Poor's, with the word DOWNGRADE (and a signature Obama campaign symbol in the O blown up full-screen.

The music takes a hopeful turn as House Speaker Dean Cannon, Haridopolos and Gov. Rick Scott appear in a beaming photo midway through the video. Text below reads: "With bold leadership Florida is moving in the right direction." (Get it? It's "right" because they're Republicans.)

The video touts things like Florida's tax cuts, balanced budget and welfare reform before informing viewers how S&P upgraded the state's credit-rating outlook from negative to stable. (PolitiFact Florida previously reviewed a less-artfully worded claim about the "upgrade" from Scott and rated it False.)

The overall point is to juxtapose the country's dreary state of affairs under Obama's leadership against Florida's, which is apparently on the up under the "right" leaders.

The video closes by referring viewers to www.flsenate.gov for more information.

You can imagine why Democrats weren't amused. Democratic Rep. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg posted the video on his Facebook page, commenting, "This campaign video is being distributed by the Florida Senate using your tax dollars. It's an inappropriate use of funds and an inaccurate message."

His post attracted 84 comments as of Sept. 2, 2011, from outraged Facebook friends. "I don't see why the Senate is in the business of advertising in the first place, it doesn't matter what the message is," wrote a woman named Maggie Wilms Byrns.

More frustrations abounded on the video's YouTube page, viewed more than 1,000 times. One person wrote: "This is so ridiculous and I am deeply offended as a Floridian that at the end of this garbage it says FloridaSenate.gov...is this an official video by the FL Senate? Since when does the legislature get to put out biased videos full of lies. My family does not have more money in our wallets due to Rick Scott. My husband is one of those public employees making 3% less this year. He is making less today than 5 years ago, how is that good? This is totally due to Republican legislature not Obama."

Readers asked PolitiFact Florida to check out how the video was created and who paid for it.

Producing videos to advance a message is not uncommon in the Senate it turns out. The Senate maintains a roster of YouTube videos from Republican and Democratic members on its website. Most open with an image of the official state seal.

Haridopolos boasted about his commitment to transparency by removing his office doors in this Nov. 19, 2010, video. In another, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, explained his veterans-related bills in 2011 in front of a computer-generated American flag. South Florida Republican Sens. Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia appear in this Spanish-language "Mesa Redonda" video from April 2011, uploaded by user FLSenateGOP, From her personal YouTube page, Flores discussed SJR 1538, her 2011 effort to prevent federal or state tax dollars from funding abortions.

Sometimes the senators are talking personal policy, so it's inevitable for politics to come into play.

But Haridopolos' video -- "Something Different is Happening in Florida" -- goes further than any other video on the Senate website we reviewed.

Still, Haridopolos' Senate spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley said no taxpayer money was used to produce the video.

Why? Because it didn't cost anything to make it.

The video, Cruley told PolitiFact Florida, was actually created on Haridopolos' personal Apple laptop. A Senate Majority Office staffer, Robert Agrusa, who was on unpaid leave anyway, helped Haridopolos edit and produce the video in his spare time after work, she said. Haridopolos, she said, is "simply interested in getting the facts out directly to Floridians," and that his office will continue to do that through new-media venues such as videos and social media.

"We really looked at it more as a video press release," Cruley said.

That's pretty much how Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, sees it, too. Members often promote personal projects and bills, and this is just a different kind of media to utilize, he said.

"I look at it as no different than any other member of the Legislature sending a mailer, letter or doing a legislative update," he said.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston and the Senate minority leader, said she's never seen an overtly partisan press release, much less video, hosted on the Senate's website before. The closing referral to www.flsenate.gov suggests to viewers, she said, that the video is "paid for and sanctioned by the official website of the State Senate."

"It's not appropriate that this kind of political ad is on a state website," she said in an interview with PolitiFact Florida. "It's a political ad, if you will, against the President of the United States."

The facts here seem to largely line up. Let's recap:
 

  • Senators, both Democrats and Republicans, use video messages to reach out to constituents.
  • Haridopolos' video, however, goes further than others kept on the official Senate website, in that it attacks Obama.
  • The video appears to be made on private resources and on private time, but it was released through the Senate website and has been promoted -- and defended -- by Senate employees drawing a government paycheck. It also refers people to www.flsenate.gov, which at least gives it the appearance of being an official Senate video.


The last point is what gives Kriseman's statement some credence -- when he says the video is being distributed by the Florida Senate using your tax dollars. That said, the video itself was produced and made using private resources and on private time. (As an aside, we wonder if Haridopolos got the rights to use the image of Obama and other images in the ad?)

We considered rating Kriseman's statement -- "This campaign video is being distributed by the Florida Senate using your tax dollars" -- on the Truth-O-Meter. But we decided to hold off, thinking it might actually make things murkier. In short, the video was made without taxpayer dollars but is being promoted and defended with taxpayer resources.

How you feel about that is up to you.