In his Depression-era work “The People, Yes,” the fine poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” In lieu of pounding and yelling, we suppose, one could also settle, and hope the legal hot water that you’re boiling in soon evaporates — as Gov. Rick Scott and other top elected state leaders assuredly desire.
Last week, Scott and the Cabinet — which includes Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — agreed to settle a lawsuit that alleged they had skirted state open-government laws in the firing of Gerald Bailey, former commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Bailey unexpectedly stepped down in December after a lengthy and commendable tenure as Florida’s top cop. Scott said publicly that Bailey’s departure was voluntary, and Cabinet members offered that they, too, understood that was why Bailey left.
Yet as reporters kept digging, and once Bailey eventually went public to dispute that claim to the Tampa Bay Times, it became clear the governor’s staff orchestrated Bailey’s exit, while claiming to have support from Bondi, Atwater and Putnam, at least through their aides.
The state’s Sunshine Laws prohibit staffers from serving as information conduits for elected officials. Scott was well within legal and political boundaries to ask the Cabinet to join him in firing Bailey. The issue was that he was supposed to have done that at a public meeting, since the head of FDLE works for all of them, and Scott didn’t. That was probably because such a move would have not been fully supported, and a tale of resignation was easier to sell.
Feeling stonewalled by our transparency-adverse governor, open government activists and several media organizations, including GateHouse Media, which owns The Ledger, believed a lawsuit was their only vehicle to get to the truth. They sued in February.
Now, four months later and after spending close to a quarter-million dollars of taxpayers’ money — $55,000 in legal fees to the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs and at least $173,000 on their own defense — Scott and the Cabinet concluded that conditional surrender, without admitting wrongdoing, was the way to go.
In response to the criticism and questions, Scott and the Cabinet had already approved some reforms in hiring and firing agency heads. Then, the lawsuit wrung some important concessions from the Cabinet.
To wit, all Cabinet staff meetings will be recorded and broadcast and posted on the Internet; senior staffers and Cabinet aides must submit to yearly Sunshine Law training; and all emails crafted or received by the governor, Cabinet and senior staff on private email accounts will be quickly deposited into to a state government email account to make them more publicly accessible. While such emails are public records now, it is more difficult to dig them out from private accounts — as Gov. Scott is well acquainted with.
Scott, it seems, is in the process of negotiating another settlement over a similar issue. This time, it is an effort to end a legal battle with Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews, who has alleged the governor ran afoul of Sunshine Laws by utilizing a private email account for public business. Scott denied such was the case in a land dispute between Andrews and the state, but yet he kept refusing to release any information that would support his position. That is, at least until he was re-elected. Eventually, a judge in California ordered Google to hand over information that could show whether Scott’s aides set up an account for the governor to conduct state business, and negotiations with Andrews commenced. Hence, no more pounding or yelling here either. The Miami Herald reports that case has cost taxpayers at least $115,000 so far.
The cost to taxpayers certainly is a cause for concern, when we’ve shelled out $343,000 so far on this pair of lawsuits, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for the governor’s pointless legal jousting in other matters. While the reforms are welcome, most troublesome here is the damage Scott has done to his own credibility and that of his office. The watchdogs are exhausted in trying to keep up, and the governor still has almost 90 percent of his second term ahead of him.
Original article here.