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Florida's Hunt For Chinese Communist Ties Comes Up Empty-Handed

Tampa Bay Times via Miami Herald

The state went looking for Chinese communist companies to hold accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic. It hasn't found any.

Florida sent letters to 100,000 businesses and entities registered as vendors with the state in June, asking if they were “owned or controlled by the Communist Party of China.”

Months later, that hunt for Chinese communists has come up empty handed, with the state unable to cite a single company owned or controlled by the Communist Party of China that it has identified through the effort.

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Instead of finding communists, the state effort gave many Floridians a scare that the state was engaging in the kind of political fear mongering and list-making that marked the darkest days of the Cold War, according to responses reviewed by WLRN.

The move was a stroke in Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ campaign to assign blame for the COVID-19 pandemic to China. The letters were signed by him, and recipients were further asked to confirm whether they represent “U.S. Interests” or not.

Morris Bender, a defense attorney in Hollywood, said when he first received the letter, he almost couldn’t believe it was real. He called his attorney friends to verify that it was indeed a real communication from the state.

“The first impression to me is: they’re trying to do something political,” Bender told WLRN. “I don't know necessarily if it was targeted at the individual business owners of Florida or whether it was a political ploy to take back to whoever, whatever constituents they had for reelection and saying, ‘I am tough on communism, socialism, China.’”

The letter was framed as a voluntary survey, but it also mentioned that failure to respond could lead to “necessary follow-up.”

“It was essentially saying, if you don't respond, be careful,” said Bender.

The letter was not in fact a survey, he said. If it were a real survey it would have included a yes or no questionnaire, a box to check, a simple form to fill out that would make tracking the responses easy for bureaucrats on the other end. But the letter simply asked for an emailed response to the inquiry, a method Bender said would make it difficult to track the responses.

Regardless of what he thought was the sloppiness of the effort, it frightened Bender because the state of Florida “wanted your name on the record.” It reminded him of the Red Scare of the 1950s, when alleged communists were tracked down and blacklisted by the U.S. government.

“I recall when I see news reports and read articles about what Senator [Joe] McCarthy was doing was — he wanted people to swear oaths. He wanted people to put in writing that they have no association with the Communist Party,” said Bender.

In Republican circles, from President Trump on down, there has been an increasing effort to blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus undoubtedly started in China, and has since spread to virtually every nation in the world.But there’s been no evidence that China deliberately exported the virus.

The main strain of the coronavirus that took hold in the U.S. came from Europe.

Yet Republicans have been pushing to hold China accountable for the toll it has inflicted on the U.S. economy and the loss of human life. More than 200,000 people have died from the pandemic in the U.S., the largest death toll in the world. More than 14,000 of those deaths have occurred in the state of Florida.

Democrats argue blaming China is simply a cover-up for the failures of the U.S. response to the pandemic.

"I recall when I see news reports and read articles about what Senator [Joe] McCarthy was doing was — he wanted people to swear oaths. He wanted people to put in writing that they have no association with the Communist Party."

And there hasn't been much public discussion of the surveys from Patronis since the summer.

“If you are owned or partly owned by the Communist Republic of China, we want to know about it. What's the percentage that you're owned by this foreign country, and it’s as simple as that,” said Florida CFO Patronis in a June interview on Newsmax television.

The interview represents the most extensive comments Patronis has given as to his reasoning for starting the survey. Patronis was not made available for an interview for this story.

The reasoning Patronis offered is that by identifying companies owned by the Chinese government, that contract with the state of Florida, the state could cut off future payments to those companies as a way to recover damages.

“If you go and reflect back to the building boom we had back in '06, '07, '08, you know, in Florida, we had a massive influx of Chinese drywall causing cancer and health care problems,” Patronis explained. “Here's a perfect example where these drywall manufacturers were wholly owned by the Communist Party of China.”

In that particular case, Florida residents recovered millions of dollars in a settlement with the Chinese state-owned company involved.

The Florida Department of Revenue Services, headed by Patronis, told WLRN that it “continues to review” the responses that it receives to the survey that has not identified any Chinese communist companies.

Last week, Patronis issued a directive instructing the state to take the responses to that survey into account when entering into contracts with corporations. He also ordered that the Department of Financial Revenue needs to provide a legal memo “outlining legal options for pursuing claims against [China] for lost revenues and expenses incurred by the State of Florida.”

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has led an effort with fellow Republican attorneys general in other states, urging Congress to loosen up laws that would allow individual states to sue China for damages over its alleged role in spreading the coronavirus.

She also joined other Republican attorneys general in calling for congressional hearings about China’s role in allowing COVID-19 to spread beyond its borders.

“I was very shocked when I saw that letter,” Richard Stein, who owns a security company in Port St. Lucie, told WLRN. He also called around to some friends to verify that the letter was real. But ultimately, Stein came to assume there was a good reason for the state to send the letter.

“As a proud American, I was very happy to say, yeah, I don't do business with China,” said Stein. “I'm not a China organization, and I'm happy to let it be released that I am proud that I'm an American and an American corporation.”

In his written response to the state, Stein signed his letter with “go America and go Trump 2020!!!!”

Responses to the letter sent by CFO Patronis show that the effort to identify Chinese communist companies was perceived as overtly political, from both sides of the aisle.

Jean Ortega, the deputy director of the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, wrote in a response to the state: “This is a waste of time and resources for employers simply to pander to the Republican Party. The State of Florida should be concentrating on paying unemployment claims and reducing COVID-19 cases.”

The letters were often simply confusing for recipients. Several businesses responded that they are neither owned or controlled by "U.S. Interests,” but told WLRN in subsequent phone calls that those responses were mistakes. None of the businesses said they had affiliations with the Chinese Communist Party.

Some respondents seemingly thought Florida was asking if they were owned by a corporation called “U.S. Interests,” misunderstanding the nature of what the state was trying to ask them.

The city of Key West received a letter asking if it was “owned or controlled by the Communist Party of China.” Confused, a staffer sent a response noting that the “City of Key West is a US City Government entity.” A similar letter and response were sent to the Lee County Solid Waste Department.

Two respondents addressed their responses to Senator Joe McCarthy, who led the infamous hunt for communists in the 1950s.

“I just remember looking at it and thinking it was some kind of a scam,” Kurt Tezel, a real estate broker in Cocoa Beach, told WLRN. “I find it almost impossible to believe that this was a good faith effort to try to get China to pay for what they perceive as being a damages done to the state of Florida.”

“I just don't even think it's a survey. It's a statement,” he said.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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