Miami Herald by Nicholas Nehamas
August 23, 2018
Acting at the last minute Thursday, a federal judge put on hold a state court order that would have released public records relating to the fatal Florida International University bridge collapse.
U.S. District Court Judge William Stafford agreed to stay the state court ruling at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, which is representing the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal government agency investigating the collapse.
The NTSB is seeking to move the public-records case to federal court after an unfavorable ruling from a state judge earlier this week.
The records in question may explain why state officials failed to close the road under the bridge before it collapsed on March 15, killing six people.
The Miami Herald sued the Florida Department of Transportation in May to force the release of the records, after the NTSB blocked FDOT from releasing many documents, citing the need to preserve the integrity of its investigation.. A state court judge then ordered FDOT to release the documents to the Herald.
In a court filing Thursday seeking the stay, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it would ask the federal judge to “quash” the state court ruling. “The case must be dismissed in its entirety,” the filing stated.
The 950-ton bridge was developing severe cracks in the days before it collapsed, but no one ordered the road to be closed. The records sought by the Herald include minutes from a meeting held the morning of the collapse to discuss the cracks. Among those present were officials from FIU and FDOT, as well as the private contractors building the bridge.
On Tuesday, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Carroll ruled that FDOT must produce the records to the Herald. The law allows a 48-hour window, meaning a release early Thursday afternoon. Carroll said federal regulations cited by FDOT that allow the NTSB to block the release of “investigative information” did not apply to the records sought by the Herald. The judge said those regulations could not be used to pre-empt Florida’s public-records law.
“We believe these records are public, and our position has been upheld by state court,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor. “We regret the U.S. Attorney’s Office move to delay their release.”
But NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil said the agency believed Carroll’s order “impinges on the Board’s authority to interpret and apply its regulations” and that a federal court should prevent FDOT from releasing the records.
Amy Alexander, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment when asked why the federal government waited months to raise questions of jurisdiction.
The NTSB is not a defendant in the case, although it was given an opportunity over several months to become a party and failed to do so.