Gov. Rick Scott claims to believe strongly in open government and Florida’s Sunshine Law. But he and the state seem to have a recurring problem with emailing in the shadows.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, as many Floridians were preparing for their annual Turkey Day feast and shopping extravaganza, the governor’s office provided a cornucopia of emails from Scott’s personal Gmail account.
It was a long overdue response to a records request, and curious considering Scott’s attorneys initially had denied the emails even existed. The timing also was suspiciously convenient, coming just three weeks after the Nov. 4 election in which Scott defeated Charlie Crist in a bitter, close contest.
Thus it was not surprising Monday when Leon Circuit Court Judge Charles Francis ruled that Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews may amend his existing public records lawsuit against the governor to include an allegation that Scott intentionally withheld the emails in violation of state law.
Scott’s attorney Thomas Bishop had asked the court to strike from the record attempts by Andrews to include what he considered “gratuitous, impertinent and scandalous” allegations. However, when asked by Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas after the hearing Monday whether he had advised the governor to wait until after the election to release the emails, Bishop referred all questions to the governor’s office.
Andrews initially filed the complaint against Scott in November 2013, and more than three months ago Klas and the AP’s Gary Fineout requested Scott’s official-business emails from his private accounts. Scott had a personal Gmail account separate from his official state account, but insisted that he did not conduct public business on the private account. There’s nothing illegal about that, but private emails about state business become public records subject to the Sunshine Law.
Last we checked, there’s no exemption in the law that allows delay of a public records request until after an election.
Scott now says it was an “oops” moment — he didn’t realize at the time that he failed to hit the “forward” button on his Gmail to send those emails dealing with state business to his state account. Hey, modern technology can be so confusing.
This isn’t the first time Scott has had email problems. Soon after he took office, Scott’s transition team deleted entire email accounts in violation of state law. An FDLE investigation found no criminal intent in the deletion. It was just one of those accidents.
Meanwhile, a “deficient” backup system recently was blamed for the Department of Corrections destroying two years’ worth of emails from 2007 to 2008. The data was lost during a 2012 attempt to “fix a hardware problem.” However, it took the state over a year to answer a reporter’s records request about the emails.
Mistakes happen, either by human error or technical failures. But even a generous acceptance of excuses about email glitches does not justify the long time it has taken to fulfill records requests. That is at least a violation of the spirit of the Sunshine Law. Such delays undermine the law’s intent to hold public officials accountable. Sunshine should not be an afterthought when conducting the public’s business. It should be at the forefront.