The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press, a St. Petersburg lawyer and a coalition of sunshine advocates filed a lawsuit late Tuesday alleging that Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet violated the state’s open meeting laws when the governor unilaterally decided to “force the resignation” of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Chief Gerald Bailey and they consented.
The lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, alleges that Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam circumvented the requirements of the state’s Sunshine Law because they used conduits to coordinate and discuss the removal of Bailey and the selection of his replacement, Rick Swearingen, without advanced notice or in a public setting.
The groups refer to statements from the governor and Cabinet officials who acknowledged they allowed their Cabinet aides, and in the governor’s case his general counsel, to both confer about the decision to replace Bailey and agree to the hiring of Swearingen in violation of their constitutional duties.
The lawsuit comes a day before the Cabinet is to meet and discuss, this time in an open setting, the procedures for hiring and firing officials who report to them as a joint body. That meeting will be held at the state fairgrounds in Tampa coinciding with the opening of the fair. The governor rejected a request by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to shift the venue for the meeting back to Tallahassee because of the seriousness of the debate.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that all meetings are subject to the Sunshine Law and seeks an injunction against the state’s top officials conducting any future meetings in private.
“This action seeks a declaration that the Florida Cabinet is subject to the Sunshine Law when Cabinet aides seek to act for and exchange information among Cabinet members as to decisions about hiring and firing the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“The Governor violated the Sunshine Law by using conduits to engage in polling, discussions, communications and other exchanges with other members of the Cabinet regarding his unilateral decision to force the resignation of the FDLE Commissioner and appoint a replacement without any notice to the public, without any opportunity for the public to attend, and without any minutes being taken. Because the Governor appears to justify this conduct by claiming it is part of a longstanding convention and tradition, Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief.”
It also notes that the state’s laws offer little punishment for these violations.
“Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy other than an injunction to prohibit the longstanding practice of violating the Sunshine Law by allowing Cabinet aides to engage in polling, discussions and communications about appointments required to be made by the Cabinet and relaying the results of those exchanges back to Cabinet members prior to a Cabinet meeting.”
One of the plaintiffs, St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner, last week filed a complaint with the state prosecutor in Leon County alleging the Sunshine Law violations. State Attorney Willie Meggs has declined to prosecute, saying the incident is “much ado about nothing.”
Before Meggs made those statements, and before the Cabinet meeting, he attended a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion on Jan. 9 with the governor, Scott general counsel Pete Antonacci, Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and Swearingen. Weidner has suggested that Meggs recuse himself and allow the investigation to proceed.