Gov. Rick Scott believes state government should be transparent.
When it suits his agenda.
Florida’s governor and his staff have been quick, for example, to post online the salaries of state employees and requests made for public documents.
Yet a lawsuit settled last week underscored the Scott administration’s duplicity on transparency.
The suit revealed that Scott and chief aides intentionally created private email accounts that were used to communicate about public issues. Scott, key staffers and their attorneys then went to great lengths, relying on unfounded legal strategies, to prevent disclosure of those documents — even after they were known to exist.
The governor and company fought disclosure for at least three years after some of the communications took place, racking up legal bills and keeping the public in the dark. At one point, several potentially embarrassing emails were withheld.
Last Wednesday, during a meeting of the governor and Cabinet, Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed to sign a settlement ending a series of lawsuits that generated requests for the records in question. The lawsuits were linked to Scott’s botched attempt in 2012 to have the state buy a building, where the lawyer who eventually filed the suits has an office, near the governor’s mansion.
The settlement alone will cost Florida taxpayers $700,000, Mary Ellen Klas of the Tampa Bay Times reported Friday. Klas wrote that, despite repeated requests, the governor’s office did not provide her a complete accounting of all the costs related to the lawsuits.
It’s bad enough that this case will likely cost taxpayers more than $1 million when all of the governor’s expenses are totaled. It’s worse that Scott and his staff concocted the private email scheme and then stubbornly fought full disclosure. What’s more, one of Scott’s former lawyers contended that the state government was not responsible for ex-employees’ records about official business.
These acts and assertions defy the well-established principles and practices governing Florida’s open-records laws. Although Scott at one point denied that the creation of private accounts was intended to circumvent those laws and public disclosure, there was no other plausible reason for doing so.
The agreement last week marked the second time in three months that the governor was part of a settlement involving the state’s open-government laws.
On June 23, Scott and the cabinet settled a suit filed by open-government advocates and joined my media organizations — the Herald-Tribune’s corporate owners among them — after the fishy circumstances of a state law-enforcement leader’s dismissal surfaced. The plaintiffs and defendants agreed to mediation, which prevented costly litigation and produced concessions by the Cabinet that benefit the public.
The lawsuit revealed troubling findings. For example, during Scott’s first term, the aides ended a long-established practice of recording their meetings before the Cabinet convenes in public. Those staff meetings, in which policies and positions are discussed in detail, may be more important than the sessions of the Cabinet. The case — filed by Sarasota attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen — uncovered emails about public business that were exchanged on private accounts and not appropriately logged as public information. Text messages were not properly entered in the public record, either.
One provision of the most recent settlement requires the governor, Cabinet members and specific senior staff to promptly forward all public records sent to, or received by, a private account to a government email account.
We fail to understand why state officials should use private accounts to conduct public business. But, in light of last week’s settlement, it’s clear why this requirement is necessary.
Original article here.