THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 23, 2015………. Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet agreed Tuesday to pay about $55,000 in legal fees as part of a settlement to close a lawsuit alleging they violated the state’s Sunshine Law.
Cabinet members accepted the settlement shortly before agreeing to conduct a job interview Aug. 5 with Florida Department of Law Enforcement Interim Commissioner Rick Swearingen. But they held off on deciding to do the same with Department of Environmental Protection Interim Secretary Jon Steverson, as Attorney General Pam Bondi said she might have an additional name to consider for the environmental post at the August meeting.
The new agency-head selection process, including the public posting of applications and public interviews, is part of the mediated settlement with the Associated Press, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, media companies, Citizens for Sunshine and St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner.
The open-government advocates and media organizations sued Scott and the Cabinet in February seeking documents involving the abrupt departure in December of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. The plaintiffs contended that Scott and the Cabinet violated the Sunshine Law by using staff members as “conduits” in discussions about Bailey’s forced resignation.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam noted after the meeting that the agreement is not an acknowledgement of fault by the Cabinet.
“I’m pleased we came to an agreement,” Putnam said. “It builds on the reforms that the Cabinet had already adopted, and it strengthens the institution of the Cabinet.”
The settlement includes a number of measures Scott and the Cabinet have already started to implement, such as requiring new Cabinet-level hires to be publicly vetted, requiring Cabinet staff to undergo annual open-records law training and requiring that all Cabinet-aide meetings be broadcast online.
The settlement also requires that all communications about Cabinet agenda items be done in writing or during open meetings and that Scott, the Cabinet and their senior staff members forward to state email accounts all public records that have been sent and distributed from their private email accounts.
After the meeting Scott simply said the settlement “was the right thing for our state.”
Attorney Daniel Nordby, who headed the Cabinet’s legal defense, called the attorneys’ fees payment “reasonable,” as it covers just the fees involving the day of mediation talks.
“The amount here reflects favorably in comparisons with similar litigation, including some litigation involving the same plaintiffs’ counsel,” Nordby said.
Andrea Flynn Mogensen, a Sarasota attorney representing the plaintiffs, called the settlement a “positive” for both sides.
“It’s a real positive for the advocates of transparency,” Mogensen said. “But I also think it’s a win for the defendants because they agreed to be more transparent. And voters appreciate that, and the press relies upon that. The only blemish is the amount of money spent.”
In addition to Mogensen’s fees, Scott and Cabinet members will each have to cover the costs of their individual attorneys in the case. The Cabinet collectively budgeted $50,000 for outside counsel in March.
The lawsuit and the public hiring process for leaders of the law-enforcement and environmental agencies are outgrowths of the controversial ouster of Bailey.
Scott first recommended Swearingen and Steverson for the jobs in December and received Cabinet backing in January. However, they were forced to reapply for their jobs and given the interim tags when they were among 16 agency heads who failed to get Senate approval during the spring legislative session.
Unlike most state-agency heads who are under the governor, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Law Enforcement positions fall under Scott and the Cabinet.
Scott recommended only Steverson from 59 applicants for the DEP position and only Swearingen from 64 applications for the FDLE job.
In giving a review of his agency on Tuesday, Swearingen told the Cabinet an increase in chatter about terrorism “keeps me up most at night” and acknowledged that the state needs to do a better job in identifying the “radicalization” of inmates and people doing recruiting.
Swearingen, who has been with the FDLE since 1984 and served as director of the Capitol Police prior to Scott’s appointment, also spoke highly of efficiency and morale at the agency under his leadership.
“I feel comfortable in saying that I believe I have the support of the vast majority of the membership,” Swearingen said.
As for the DEP appointment, Bondi said she wasn’t ready to say who she is still considering for the position.
“I just didn’t want to exclude anyone at this point,” Bondi said.
She also declined to discuss her thoughts on Steverson, who served in the governor’s office under former governors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush and later was executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.