At some point in the future, when a historian sits down to chronicle Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure in Tallahassee, a couple of points in the governor’s favor will be abundantly clear.
The first is that Scott, whether by his own actions or by the sheer luck of timing, or perhaps some combination thereof, will have presided over one of the strongest state-level economic recoveries in the wake of the Great Recession. The second is that the Sunshine State experienced a heretofore unseen level of enthusiasm from tourists. State tourism authorities anticipate that in 2015 Florida will finally achieve Scott’s long-desired goal of luring 100 million out-of-state visitors.
We’re appreciative of these two phenomena, and that they converged at the right moment. At the rate we’re going, Florida needs all those new jobs and all that tourist spending to help generate tax revenue to cover the governor’s legal bills.
Last week Scott settled an ongoing legal brawl with one of his fiercest critics, Tallahassee lawyer Steven Andrews, by agreeing to pay Andrews $700,000 from the state’s coffers. The feud started over a land deal, but the specifics are not as critical as the fact that Andrews, through his pursuit of the case, helped expose that the governor and two aides utilized a private email account to conduct state business — a definite no-no under Florida’s vaunted public records laws.
The Andrews accord was struck roughly two months after Scott and the Cabinet voted to pay Andrea Mogensen, a Sarasota lawyer, $55,000 to settle another lawsuit over Sunshine Law violations. That case involved last year’s firing of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement administrator Gerald Bailey, whom Scott had initially maintained had resigned.
Media organizations, including GateHouse Media, The Ledger’s parent company, sued Scott after inconsistencies emerged in his comments about Bailey’s exit, which, it turned out, was engineered by Scott’s staff. The legal action revealed that Scott’s aides and those of the Cabinet officers had acted as conduits to spread details of Bailey’s departure — a no-no under Florida’s vaunted open government laws.
Missing from those settlement amounts are the attached taxpayer-funded legal fees to defend the governor and other state officials. Combined in both cases, those totaled at least $325,000.
Those two cases, running concurrently and fueled by allegations of Scott trying to skirt open government laws, cost taxpayers nearly $1.1 million.
Aside from the Sunshine Law cases, we shouldn’t forget that the governor embroiled the state in multiple, ideologically driven lawsuits. At Scott’s behest, Attorney General Pam Bondi has pursued cases to overturn the Affordable Car Act, to force state employees and welfare recipients to submit to drug testing and to block gay marriage.
Last year the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that the state spent nearly $400,000 on the pair of drug-testing lawsuits. It’s unclear what the state paid in legal costs for the other two cases, but suffice to say we would not be surprised if those rang up in hundreds of thousands of dollars as well, given the length of time they dragged on.
We don’t necessarily want to excuse the governor for his politically motivated legal tirades against President Barack Obama, state employees, welfare recipients and gay couples. But we see the Sunshine Law actions as much more troubling.
As the Associated Press reported in its coverage of the state’s deal with Andrews, the “settlement means that Scott can avoid having a judge rule that his administration broke the law.” The same could be said about the Bailey brouhaha.
What’s significant about that is that it took private lawyers and the media to go after the governor for his failure to abide by our state’s laws, while the state’s top law enforcement official, if not exactly an accomplice, chose to be a bystander.
After the Andrews deal was announced, Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, observed, “Our governor plays fast and loose with our Constitution and we’re stuck with his legal bills. It’s outrageous.” Yes, it is. We’re likely close to $2 million and counting. But who knows what new shenanigans will occur, since the defense won’t be on his own dime, or how much will it cost to extricate him from them? Thus, Floridians should clutch their wallets tight and hope the governor can keep convincing companies and tourists to come here, if only to share the burden.
Original article here.