Gov. Rick Scott demanded Friday that Sen. Bill Nelson provide proof of his claim that Russians have penetrated Florida voting systems.
"Either Bill Nelson knows of crucial information the federal government is withholding from Florida elections officials, or he is simply making things up," Scott said in remarks prepared for delivery at a campaign event in Tampa.
"Did Nelson illegally release some classified information? Or did he make this charge of Russian penetration up?" Scott's statement said.
Scott's criticism of Nelson adds a new dimension to their U.S. Senate race.
Nelson, a Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday in Tallahassee that he was aware of Russians being "in Florida's election records," but when pressed for details, he said: "That's classified," and a brief media availability then moved on to other topics.
Nelson repeated the assertion at a campaign event Wednesday in Tampa, saying: "This is no-fooling time." Nelson has stood by his statement but has declined to elaborate.
The audio of Nelson's statements in Tampa can be heard here.
At both stops, Nelson referred to a July 2 letter that was signed by him and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio that urged Florida's 67 election supervisors to ask for cyber-security help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The letter cited Russian attempts to infiltrate Florida voting systems in the 2016 election. Referencing a recent Senate Intelligence Committee report, the letter said: "It is possible that additional activity occurred and has not yet been uncovered."
Nelson is not a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In a statement Thursday evening, Nelson said: "For months, (Rubio) and I have been warning Florida's elections officials about the threat they face and urging them to reach out to the federal government for help. I hope the appropriate federal officials find a way to immediately provide them all the information they can to protect our elections."
Rubio, a Republican, has pointedly raised alarms of possible Russian interference. But he has declined to comment on Nelson's remarks.
Two county election supervisors -- Paul Lux of Okaloosa and Craig Latimer of Hillsborough -- attended a private meeting on May 30 with Rubio at the Orlando airport at which each man said Rubio seemed to make an indirect reference to more Russian meddling.
When supervisors pressed Rubio to identify which counties were targeted, Lux said Rubio told them: "'I don't think it's anybody in this room.'"
Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, on Thursday sent a letter to Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., seeking additional information about Nelson's claim.
Here's the transcript of Scott's remarks to the media on Nelson, as provided by Scott's campaign.
Before I take your questions, I want to address a very serious issue.
All of Florida election officials have been working very hard to keep our elections fair and free from any meddling by anyone.
This includes investing millions of dollars in cyber security, hiring additional cyber security staff, and securing election security grants for all 67 counties in Florida.
We have free and fair elections in Florida with no fraud. And while we know there are threats out there, we have taken every precaution to keep it that way.
It’s also important to note that we have worked constantly with our state and federal partners, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
And of course we have an election underway right now, with people casting absentee ballots and early voting starting in a matter of days.
Floridians are confident in our elections systems and they should be.
But earlier this week, Bill Nelson made some very serious allegations in a press conference. Let’s review what he said, as this is important:
Bill Nelson said the chairman and vice chairman of Intelligence Committee requested that he “let supervisors of election in Florida know that Russians are inside our records.”
Bill Nelson said that the Russians “have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.”
And, when pressed for more details, Bill Nelson only said “it’s classified.”
As you know, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday asking for immediate clarification on all these sensational claims.
The Department of State hasn’t received any evidence or details for this, and with early voting beginning Monday, Floridians must maintain confidence in our elections systems.
Then, in response to the letter yesterday, Nelson alleged that the federal officials are withholding crucial information from election officials here in Florida.
Here’s Bill Nelson’s quote: "I hope the appropriate federal officials find a way to immediately provide them all the information they can to protect our elections."
Nelson is now accusing the Administration of withholding important information from Florida election officials that could protect our election process here in Florida.
That is a very serious charge, for which Bill Nelson has provided no proof.
This cannot be overlooked – either Bill Nelson knows of crucial information the federal government is withholding from Florida election officials, or he is simply making things up.
And in our conversations with federal officials, and in public statements including from our supervisors of elections, so far, no one seems to know what Nelson is talking about.
This cannot be swept under the rug. Bill Nelson must come clean and provide a thorough explanation. Elections are not something to try to scare people about.
Americans have died fighting for the right to vote.
The next issue is also very serious. If Nelson does have secret classified information on this, how did he get it? Did Homeland security give him a briefing on it? He’s not in the intelligence committee.
Did the intelligence committee provide him with a briefing on this classified information he says he knows? Where and how did he obtain this classified information?
Also, if Nelson does have classified information, why is he releasing it in statements to reporters while campaigning? And only releasing pieces of it like this is a game of Clue? Illegally releasing classified information is a violation of the public trust and the oath of office.
Did Nelson illegally release some classified information? Or did he make this charge of Russian penetration up?
All of us are focused on having fair elections. But Nelson owes Floridians a real explanation, and simply stating that he’s worried about Russian interference isn’t going to cut it – he must provide evidence for his claims.
You can be sure of this, all of Florida’s election officials are working overtime to make sure we continue to have free and fair elections with no fraud. We take every threat seriously, and we take every precaution.
I urge everyone to get out to vote in these primaries, and then in the general election in November. Our goal is always 100% voter participation, and 0% fraud.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.