How The Florida Governor's Office Manipulated Media By Altering The Findings Of An Investigation Into Planned Parenthood

The Florida agency tasked with investigating Planned Parenthood clinics in that state found no evidence that they were mishandling fetal remains, but Gov. Rick Scott's office altered the agency's statements to remove language that exonerated Planned Parenthood, and added new language that made the organization look guilty of wrongdoing. Several media outlets unwittingly quoted the statements before the misleading edits were discovered.

Gov. Rick Scott Asked Florida's Agency For Health Care Administration To Investigate The State's 16 Planned Parenthood Clinics

Following Release of Deceptively-Edited Videos Targeting Planned Parenthood, Florida Gov. Rick Scott Announced A Statewide Investigation. After the release of the third deceptively-edited video attacking Planned Parenthood by the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress (CMP), Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) announced on July 29 that he had asked the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) to begin an investigation into the state's 16 Planned Parenthood clinics. Scott made the decision despite the fact that no Florida Planned Parenthood clinics or staff appeared in any of CMP's videos. From a report by Politico's Florida bureau:

Florida health care regulators will immediately being investigating 16 Planned Parenthood clinics in Florida to ensure they aren't “selling body parts” and violating state law, Governor Rick Scott said Wednesday.


In all, there are 66 licensed abortion clinics in Florida. Scott is directing the Agency for Health Care Administration to investigate only the Planned Parenthood facilities that operate in 13 counties. [Politico Florida, 7/29/15]

Media Initially Reported Agency's Statement That Threatened Legal Action Over “Unauthorized Abortions” 

WSJ: AHCA Statement Said Three Florida Clinics “Self-Reported That They Were Performing Unauthorized Abortions During The Second Trimester,” And Hinted At Forthcoming Legal Action. The Wall Street Journal quoted an August 17 statement released by the AHCA, which focused entirely on the claim that Planned Parenthood “self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions during the second trimester,” and raised the possibility that the state might bring legal action against Planned Parenthood. The article also explained that Planned Parenthood and the AHCA define “second trimester” differently:

“Planned Parenthood self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions during the second trimester at three of their Florida clinics,” the agency said, adding it “looks forward to litigating this matter.”

A state report said Florida law considers the second trimester to begin following the 12th week of pregnancy and last through the 24th week. Clinic administrators said they consider the first trimester to last for 13 weeks and six days after the patient's last reported menstrual period, according to the state report. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the medical standard is to measure pregnancy from the last menstrual period, which is roughly two weeks before fertilization. Based on that, 12 weeks after fertilization would be equivalent to 14 weeks after the last menstrual period. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/17/15]

Multiple Media Outlets Quoted AHCA's Statement In Their Articles About Investigation's Finding. Like the Wall Street Journal, multiple media outlets quoted the AHCA statement in stories about what the statewide investigation had turned up:

The Hill:

“Planned Parenthood self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions during the 2nd trimester at three of their Florida clinics,” AHCA said in a statement responding to the suit. “The Agency looks forward to litigating this matter.”

WFTS, A Tampa Bay, Florida ABC Affiliate:

In a statement AHCA told ABC Action News, “Planned Parenthood self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions during the 2nd trimester at three of their Florida clinics.”

WMBB, A Panama City, Florida ABC Affiliate:

[The Hill, 8/17/15; WFTS, ABC Action News 8/17/15; WMBB, News 13 Live at Five, 8/17/15]

But Emails Revealed That Gov. Scott's Office “Scrubbed” The AHCA Statement And Added Its Own Language About Legal Action

Politico: “Scott's Office Scrubbed Release That Cleared Planned Parenthood” Of Handling Fetal Remains. An August 5 press release written by officials at Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration included the sentence, “There is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state.” But before their statement was released to the media, that sentence was removed at the direction of Gov. Scott's office, and a new sentence was added that claimed there would be “possible disciplinary action.” From Politico Florida (emphasis added):

Gov. Rick Scott's office scrubbed a press release written by his own regulators that found there was no “mishandling of fetal remains” at clinics run by Planned Parenthood and, at the same time, said it would refer doctors who worked at those clinics to the state Board of Medicine for possible disciplinary action.


But emails between Scott's office, the Agency for Health Care Administration and Planned Parenthood show top officials working for Scott reworded an agency press release to delete information AHCA officials had proposed including.

The state released its findings of the Planned Parenthood investigations on Aug. 5. Emails between the governor's office and AHCA, obtained by POLITICO Florida through a public records request, show the agency prepared a press release that same day noting that “there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state.”

Scott's office revised the release to exclude that sentence, an email sent by Scott's communications director, Jackie Schutz, shows. Additionally, the revised release noted the AHCA would refer physicians who worked at the clinics to the Board of Medicine for possible disciplinary action.

When the revised release was sent back to the AHCA for review, Katherine Riviere, the communications director, sent an email to senior staff, including Secretary Liz Dudek, that said, “I would have thought a line on no evidence of mishandling of fetal remains would be included as that's what questions will be on.”

Dudek, in response to Riviere's email, said she “agreed with the comment.” [Politico Florida, 9/2/15]

Tampa Bay Times: “Scott's Staff Rewrote Press Releases About The Investigation And Penned Some Statements That Were Attributed To AHCA Executives.” The Tampa Bay Times reported that the governor's office altered the language in two separate statements the agency prepared (emphasis added):

When state health officials released the results of an investigation into Planned Parenthood clinics last month, Gov. Rick Scott's office was whispering in their ears.

Aides to the governor were intimately involved in crafting the message when the agency announced allegations that three Florida Planned Parenthood clinics had violated their licenses.Nearly every on-the-record statement given by the Agency for Health Care Administration to reporters and the public was first approved by a member of Scott's communications team, emails obtained by the Times/Herald show.

Scott's staff rewrote press releases about the investigation and penned some statements that were attributed to AHCA executives. His office even directed the health care agency to cut a sentence in a draft press release that acknowledged the main reason the investigation fell short: Inspectors found no evidence that Florida Planned Parenthood clinics broke the law by operating a fetal tissue donation program.

After results of the investigation were made public, the emails show, Scott's staff continued its involvement by orchestrating attempts by AHCA staffers to persuade reporters to change parts of their stories. [Tampa Bay Times, 9/9/15]

Tampa Bay Times: AHCA Statement Claiming Planned Parenthood “Self-Reported” Unauthorized Actions Was Actually Written By The Governor's Deputy Communications Director. The Tampa Bay Times also reported:

On Aug. 17, an “agency statement” from AHCA attributed to [AHCA Communications Director Katherine] Riviere challenged Planned Parenthood further, saying the organization “self-reported that they were performing unauthorized abortions.” Emails show that this statement was actually written by John Tupps, the governor's deputy communications director. [Tampa Bay Times, 9/9/15]

Tampa Bay Times: Governor's Staff Also “Instructed AHCA” To Insist That Media Use Their “Whole” Statement. Tampa Bay Times reporter Michael Auslen also explained that the initial Times write-up of the ACHA statement had only paraphrased the dispute between Planned Parenthood and the agency. But then the agency emailed reporters asking that the story be changed to include their complete statement. According to Auslen, the AHCA was “instructed” by the governor's staff to email this to reporters. From the Tampa Bay Times:

After the Herald/Times decided not to publish that portion of the statement and instead to write that the state and Planned Parenthood disagreed over the claim, the governor's staff instructed AHCA that the “whole statement” about self-reporting unauthorized abortions should be included. Three minutes later, Riviere sent an email to reporters to ask that the story be changed. [Tampa Bay Times, 8/17/15; Tampa Bay Times, 9/9/15]