When Gov. Ron DeSantis held a quickly called news conference Tuesday, he dropped a bombshell: Two Florida counties were hacked by Russians before the 2016 elections.
DeSantis said he received the information during a briefing with the FBI, confirming longstanding speculation and reports about Russians trying to get into Florida voting systems.
But the governor emphasized that the hacking did not involve “manipulation” of voting results.
“There was no manipulation, or anything, but there was voter data that was able to be got,” DeSantis said. “Now, that voter data I think was public anyway. Nevertheless, those were intrusions. It did not affect any voting, or anything like that.”
The news conference, however, left major questions unanswered --- including which counties were subject to the “intrusions.”
Part of the answer came Thursday when The Washington Post and Politico reported that rural Washington County was one of the targets of the hackers. Washington County, like most of the rest of Northwest Florida, overwhelmingly backed President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
“The Russian military agency, the GRU, was responsible for the penetration of Washington County’s database,” the Post reported.
The hackers accessed voter-information files, not the systems that do vote tallying, FBI officials told DeSantis.
Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida professor who researches state voting data and trends, shared graphs on Twitter that he said show “little evidence of any Russian success hacking Washington County.”
“(But) they likely mobilized low propensity voters on Election Day in Florida, perhaps as a result of GOTV efforts on Facebook. Trump crushed Clinton on Election Day in Florida, and other states,” Smith tweeted, referring to get-out-the-vote efforts and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The name of the second targeted county has not been made public.
DESANTIS ON A SIGNING SPREE
DeSantis signed a number of bills this week, including a toll-road plan that environmentalists hate, a $121 million tax-cut package and a crackdown on texting while driving.
On Wednesday, DeSantis signed the tax package, which features disaster-preparedness and back-to-school tax holidays, as well as relief for business owners who rent commercial space and farmers who sustained damage in Hurricane Michael.
Two days later, the governor signed two closely watched measures: One will make texting while driving a primary traffic offense, and another will help pave the way for building or expanding three toll roads, a priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
The texting-while-driving bill is designed to reduce distracted driving. In the past, police have only been able to cite motorists for texting while driving if they are pulled over for other reasons. By making it a primary offense, the state is allowing police to pull over motorists for texting behind the wheel.
“We cannot prevent all accidents on our roadways, but it is our hope that by taking action to address distractions today, we might be able to prevent a tragedy tomorrow,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Sarasota, where he also announced he was signing the toll-road bill.
That bill will take initial steps to expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border; extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and add a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.
MIGRANT PLAN BLINDSIDES DESANTIS
Local officials said Thursday that the federal government plans to start releasing hundreds of migrants into Broward and Palm Beach counties, an announcement that blindsided DeSantis, who has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
“We have been very cooperative, and then to have this put into certain communities, I think it’s just something that we don’t want,” DeSantis said Friday.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection could start sending about 135 migrants twice a week to Palm Beach and Broward counties, according to Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who said he talked to officials at the federal immigration enforcement agency. The plan could start as soon as the next two weeks.
Bradshaw made the news public Thursday before DeSantis and other officials, including Attorney General Ashley Moody, who works with law-enforcement agencies across the state, were informed. That left state leaders scrambling for information.
“First of all, nothing is concrete. There’s been no migrants brought and released in Florida from this whole problem,” DeSantis said Friday. “Not one migrant has come in, according to the White House, which we talked to yesterday. I just want to let people know that.”
The news came after DeSantis pushed state lawmakers to pass legislation to ban so-called sanctuary cities statewide and after he directed the head of Florida’s prison system to look into launching a pilot program that would allow state correctional officers to double as federal immigration agents.
VISIT FLORIDA MAKES CUTS
Faced with what one board member called a “prove-it” year to state lawmakers, the Visit Florida Board of Directors on Wednesday approved a 30 percent payroll cut.
Reluctant leaders of the tourism-marketing agency agreed to slash payroll by $3.65 million, and strategic marketing by $17.8 million, with an acknowledgement the agency must do a better job of selling itself to lawmakers, particularly in the House, which sought to eliminate the public-private agency during this year’s legislative session.
Visit Florida survived in the session --- but took a 34 percent funding cut.
As the session wound down, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he accepted a request from DeSantis’ office to keep Visit Florida in business for another year “so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is.”
That put pressure on Visit Florida to prove it should be allowed to keep its doors open.
“We have to market ourselves, and the campaign, I’m making it up as I’m sitting here, should look something like, ‘This is how necessary we are,’” Visit Florida board member Carol Dover said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the FBI confirmed to him that Russian hackers breached two counties in Florida.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “In my opinion, the people that we can’t find shelter for and will become homeless, I would suggest that we bring them to the Trump hotels and ask the president to open his heart and homes as well.” ---- Broward County Mayor Mark Bogen, referring to a plan by the federal government to transport hundreds of migrants to Broward and Palm Beach counties. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is in Palm Beach County.