By Tom Lyons
Published: Saturday, January 31, 2015 at 6:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2015 at 6:41 p.m.
A prosecutor in Tallahassee is showing Floridians, by bad example, just why cumbersome and expensive private lawsuits have become the primary means of enforcing the state’s Sunshine laws.
To most prosecutors, Florida’s Sunshine laws are more like guidelines, really. Very loose ones.
State Attorney Willie Meggs and his colleagues are supposedly all about enforcing state laws, but he and other prosecutors statewide tend to dodge and weave to avoid looking into allegations of open meetings violations.
That is especially so when the suspects are elected state officials that the prosecutors really don’t want to irritate.
In Meggs’ case, the key elected official he is not investigating is his friend Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, along with members of Scott’s staff.
The allegation of a Sunshine Law violation was raised by Matthew Weidner, an outspoken lawyer in Tampa, after the governor’s staff secretly pressured Florida Department of Law Enforcement director Gerald Bailey to resign.
Bailey said after his exit that he resigned under great pressure — and after high-ranking members of the governor’s staff informed him that the governor wanted Bailey out and supposedly had the cabinet votes lined up to fire him.
Did they? Maybe not. It may have been a flat-out lie. No known public records show any written communications that would have led the governor or his staff to think cabinet members were on board with forcefully ousting the long-time FDLE director without apparent cause.
After Bailey revealed that he was forced out, all three of the elected cabinet members who, along with Scott, would have had a vote in such an effort, said they did not even know Bailey was being urged to go.
But if there were any private conversations between the governor and cabinet — even with staff acting as go-betweens — to organizing an ouster vote or a threat of one, those private talks would almost certainly have been illegal.
That, anyway, is what Barbara Petersen of the Florida First Amendment Foundation says is clear and obvious in state law.
Petersen knows and loves the state’s Sunshine laws more than anyone I know. She says that, as with local city and county commissions, cabinet business is supposed to be done at open meetings or through communications everyone can see or hear.
Yet when Weidner urged an investigation, Meggs’s rejected the idea by saying it would be virtually impossible to prove a violation even if one took place.
As Meggs put it to a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reporter:
“It doesn’t ring my bell . . . If one of the Cabinet staff aides came to my office and wanted to confess, that’s about the only way I’m going to prove a violation of the Sunshine Law . . . People are generally smart enough that if they know they’re violating the law they’re not going to put it in writing.”
I guess Meggs assumes violators would all lie under oath.
Could be. But if Meggs were always so easily daunted, lots more crimes would go unpunished.
In fact, sometimes government insiders don’t stonewall. Some plead ignorance, claiming they didn’t know they were violating a law. Some may decide not to risk lying when they know others might tell the truth.
It looks like Meggs just knows that if you don’t want to know about a violation that would put elected pals on the spot, it is safest not to investigate. Otherwise, you he could get unlucky and find evidence.
Petersen is well accustomed to prosecutors ducking such investigations. But she sounds especially dismayed about Meggs and his casual dismissal of this matter.
“He infuriates me,” Petersen said. “I want to smack him upside the head.”
Meggs, in effect, told every Tallahassee official they can violate the law safely as long as they don’t drop by with a voluntary confession, she said.
Major decisions like getting rid of the FDLE director can’t lawfully be made on the governor’s whim. That’s why a cabinet vote would have been required to fire Bailey. But Meggs is acting like no matter what happened here, it is no big deal and just the usual way things are done in Tallahassee.
Petersen said the latter may be all too true, thanks to Meggs and others prosecutors.
Because they won’t enforce the law, she said, “Tallahassee functions outside the sunshine.”