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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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NRA protest to Gov. Scott’s office leads to reversal letter

TALLAHASSEE — National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer was unhappy, which is no small concern in the halls of the state Capitol.

The ire of one of Tallahassee’s most powerful lobbyists is the sort of force that can change laws and end political careers.

Take, for instance, Senate Bill 296.

Terrence Gorman, general counsel for the Department of Military Affairs and a staff attorney for the Florida National Guard stationed in St. Augustine, had just given testimony during a Senate committee hearing critical of a bill Hammer supports.

The negative comments led Hammer to lean back in her chair and tell Mike Prendergast, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, that Gorman is on her “s--- list,” a comment Hammer confirms she made. After the testimony Hammer beat a path to the governor’s office. Soon, a letter was issued by the Florida National Guard distancing itself from its own attorney’s remarks.

The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, allows people who are required to evacuate during an emergency like a hurricane to carry a gun on them even if they don’t have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

The National Guard responds to those types of emergencies.

People without proper training shouldn’t have weapons in those high-stress situations, Gorman told the committee last week.

“They probably should not have a weapon shoved in the back of their pants,” he said. “You’re talking about thousands of people who need to be evacuated.”

What happened next highlights Hammer’s power in the state Capitol.

After the committee meeting, the bill moved to the “temporarily postponed” stage. That happens when there are problems with legislation, or when there aren’t votes in place for passage.

After the hearing, Hammer met with Adam Hollingsworth, Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff, and Pete Antonacci, Scott’s top attorney, to express her concern.

The next day, Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw, the Florida National Guard’s top official, sent a letter to the committee chairman, state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, rejecting Gorman’s testimony.

Scott’s office confirmed the meeting happened and that it asked Titshaw to send the letter.

“Capt. Terrence Gorman is not authorized to speak for the Department of Military Affairs on legislative issues,” the two-sentence letter read. “Department of Military Affairs supports Senate Bill 296.”

John Tupps, a Scott spokesman, said the governor’s office asked Titshaw to write the letter to correct the record. The governor’s office oversees the Department of Military Affairs.

“Our office took action to correct an inaccurate representation of this administration’s policy,” Tupps wrote in a statement, which stressed Scott supports the bill.

Hammer said she went to the governor’s office because she saw Gorman talking with representatives from the Florida Sheriff’s Association, which opposes the bill, before the meeting.

“I’ve never seen someone from an agency being coached like that,” Hammer said. “It concerned me.”

She said she didn’t request that the letter be sent.

In a statement, the Florida Sheriff’s Association said it didn’t give direction to Gorman before he testified.

“If the allegation is that the Florida Sheriff’s Association, or anyone from a sheriff’s office, influenced the representative from the Department of Military Affairs, it is simply not true,” said Nanette Schimpf, an association spokeswoman.

In addition to the letter, one of the Florida National Guard’s top officials directly reached out to at least a handful of House and Senate members who sit on committees set to hear the bill.

When initially asked if the National Guard reached out directly to members of committees reviewing the bill, spokesman James Evans said that Maj. Gen. Jame Tyre, the guard’s assistant adjutant general, did so. Shortly after making that statement, Evans called the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau to “clarify” that Tyre had planned on reaching out, but never did.

Tyre did at least reach out to Altman and state Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington

“He called to make sure I had received the letter,” Altman said.

Tuesday afternoon, Brandes’ bill was temporarily postponed for a second time — a maneuver typically used if there are problems with a bill or if the sponsor does not have enough votes to get it passed.

Hammer, though, remain optimistic.

“As long as there is five minutes left in session, everything is alive,” she said.

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