Gov. Rick Scott has some explainin’ to do. For more than a year, he claimed he didn’t violate Florida’s public records law by using his private Gmail account for public business as alleged in a lawsuit. It turns out he was mistaken.
Scott’s lawyers last month turned over 197 pages of email conversations in an ongoing public records lawsuit that showed the governor did use his personal account to discuss state business. This after Scott and his attorneys told the court that it hadn’t happened and that such records didn’t exist.
The revelation prompted Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Francis last week to amend the lawsuit to determine if the governor intentionally withheld public records, a serious charge for a man sworn to uphold state laws — all of them.
State law carries a maximum $500 fine for violation of public records law and more serious penalties, including impeachment of any official who “knowingly violates” the statutes.
The law gives the governor the power to remove a public official who “knowingly violates” the public records statute. What does it say when it’s the governor who’s under the legal cloud?
Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine law is among the nation’s best. It allows Floridians access to emails and other records to determine who is influencing elected officials as they shape public programs and policies. Our state works best when its citizens are informed, which is increasingly difficult without easy access to public records and meetings.
As governor-elect, Scott seemed to embrace the law by keeping the state’s Office of Open Government, a creation of his predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
But he quickly ran into trouble when questions surfaced about who was providing financial support to his first transition team. Requests for public records found 40 to 50 email accounts of the new governor-elect and his transition team had been deleted, something Scott’s staff quickly described as a “mistake.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement cleared Scott of any wrongdoing, and the controversy led to the 2012 creation of Project Sunburst, a website that promised to make all emails written by the governor and his staff available to the public.
But what began as a promise of transparency proved to be a sham as press disclosures revealed the governor and his staff supposedly rarely used emails. In the end, Project Sunburst collected mostly mundane matters, like routine government reports, news releases and meeting notices.
Even the governor’s private plane became a source of public-records friction. Citing security, specifically a legal exemption that protects FDLE’s “surveillance techniques,” Scott has withheld information about where he is going and with whom he is meeting, even after the fact.
The bottom line? The Scott administration has erected barriers to public records, marginalized the transparency promised by Project Sunburst, shielded public emails written on his personal account and interpreted the state’s Sunshine laws in a way that open-government advocates say has set back the clock on Florida’s open-records tradition.
The governor’s office has described this latest public-records flap as an oversight, generated by an attorney who “makes his living by suing the state and launching personal attacks.” But considering the bigger picture — and that it wasn’t just one or two emails written on his personal account — it’s more accurate to see the latest revelation as a clear violation of Florida law, from someone who should know better.