Gov. Rick Scott left private business for public service but has continued to act like a CEO with something to hide.
The latest example is revelations that the governor’s office used private email accounts and personal cellphones to hide details about a $5 million project to revamp property around the governor’s mansion.
This is despite laws and policies requiring exactly the opposite be done. Following past actions intended to conceal meetings and communications by the governor and his staff, it provides further proof that Scott has created a culture of secrecy in defiance of state public records law.
“We don’t know where he goes. We don’t know who he goes with. We don’t know who he meets with,” Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau. “Scott comes from a corporate environment where it’s a ‘need-to-know-only’ basis. What’s the point of adopting a policy if you don’t enforce it?”
The Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reported that Scott’s first two chiefs of staff instructed employees to use private email accounts and personal cellphones to communicate anything that was sensitive, creating a barrier to public-records requests.
His current chief of staff, to his credit, instituted a policy discouraging the practice as well as a texting ban for employees, yet has received hundreds of text messages from prominent Republicans seeking to communicate with the governor.
In the case of the governor’s mansion, the plan was to buy up dilapidated nearby properties as part of a project to spruce up the entrance and build a visitors commons. First lady Ann Scott embraced the project, and corporate donors such as U.S. Sugar and Florida Power & Light each donated $100,000.
Despite public officials using state time to work on the project, they used their own cellphones and email accounts to avoid creating a public-records trail. Details about the project only emerged due to a lawsuit filed by Tallahassee lawyer Steven R. Andrews. The Andrews lawsuit and Times/Herald reporting have shown that such practices are routine in the Scott administration. After denying that text messages of state officials exist, the lawsuit has shown that officials used personal accounts to send hundreds of them — a distinction that shouldn’t have mattered under public-records law.
It isn’t the only time that the Scott administration has flouted public-records law. Meetings and travel are regularly left off from his official schedule. A trip last year to Texas’ King Ranch to meet with executives from U.S. Sugar — a six-figure contributor to Scott’s campaign — is just one example. Public-records requests are met with delays and excessive costs. Requests must go through individuals instead of agencies, making it nearly impossible to get records once someone leaves state government.
Scott entered office claiming an unprecedented commitment to transparency — even creating an Office of Open Government his first day in office. Instead, he has the worst record of any modern governor in terms of public records and open government.
If Scott wants a second term as governor, it’s high time that he accept that state law requires the business of the public to be conducted in public.