Tampa Bay Times by Mark Puente
August 14, 2017
When state Rep. Larry Ahern was tabbed earlier this year to craft a bill to reform the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, he said publicly there was no need to disband the agency.
But privately, the Seminole Republican held a much different view.
In a Feb. 1 email sent from his private account, Ahern ripped the board for being useless.
“… If the intent was to prevent unlicensed activity, it’s not very effective or efficient,” the legislator wrote to a contractor. “Even the amount of unpaid/uncollected fines is staggering … nothing is usually done to make the consumer whole again after the damage is done.”
Now Ahern is running for the Pinellas County Commission, and his email raises some questions:
Why did the legislator propose a law that belied his private stance?
What other public business has he conducted out of public view, using private email?
• • •
The Tampa Bay Times discovered Ahern’s email when requesting records about the licensing agency from the city of Pinellas Park. In late June, the Times asked Ahern to turn over all emails from his public and private accounts dealing with the licensing agency under Florida’s public records law.
The Florida House of Representatives provided his emails — but omitted the Feb. 1 private email. State officials said those were the records turned over by Ahern’s office.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, an expert on the state’s public records law, called it a “problem” when elected officials do official business with their private email accounts.
“It doesn’t look good when there’s a damning record not turned over,” Petersen said. “This is an ongoing problem when officials use private accounts. We need to hold them accountable.”
Public records law doesn’t just apply to public email accounts — it applies to all email used to conduct official business. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration got caught in 2013 using private Gmail accounts. Taxpayers ended up spending $700,000 to settle a public records lawsuit over the matter.
The Times asked Ahern why that email was omitted. In response, Florida House General Counsel Adam Tanenbaum sent the omitted email and a statement on July 14, saying that taxpayers can “rest assured that Rep. Ahern complied fully” with the record request.
The Feb. 1 email “did not come up in a prior search,” Tanenbaum said, and was left out by mistake.
When the Times asked Ahern why he failed to turn over the email, the legislator declined to comment. [READ MORE]