Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office has a no-texting policy for staff. It also has a policy that discourages the use of private email accounts for public business.
But as a result of a lawsuit by Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews, documents have emerged that show both policies are routinely ignored by the governor’s staff, agencies heads and countless others in state government. Here’s today’s story on how they kept details on a mansion plan under wraps. Here’s last week’s story on how the practice serves to put up barriers to public records.
Former members of the governors staff have also told the Herald/Times that two of the governor’s former chiefs of staff, Mike Prendergast and Steve MacNamara, instructed employees to use personal emails and personal cell phone text messages to communication anything that was sensitive, creating a barrier to access when records requests were made.
Current chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth told reporters he doesn’t use text messages to communicate, but that didn’t stop him from accepting hundreds of messages from prominent Republicans seeking input with the governor. Only after these messages were revealed did Hollingsworth turn off the text messaging function of his phone.
When asked for text messages of state officials, the Office of Open Government has repeatedly told people that no text messages exist. But after a judge ordered documents in his property dispute with the state to be released, Andrews was able to break through that smokescreen.
Andrews obtained thousands of text messages from the private cell phones of several members of the governor’s office and emails from the private accounts of several state employees — all public business on private accounts. State law says that it doesn’t matter where a public record resides — on a public or private account — it is still a public record.
Colleen Andrews, a paralegal and Steve Andrews’ wife, said she discovered the existence of the text messages after combing through thousands of emails and finding evidence that Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard had sent a text to Carrie O’Rourke, deputy chief of staff for the governor.
Andrews then asked the governor’s office for electronic communications on state or personal cell phones, personal workstations, personal laptop computers, or other personal devices sent or received from Jan. 1, 2012 to April 11, 2014, as well as notices of destrubtion submitted ot the Department of State regarding those public records.
The governor’s deputy general counsel Heather Stearns replied “there are no public records responsive to your request.”
She then directed Andrews to the employees, whom the governor now considers custodians of the state’s public records, not his office. “Steve MacNamara, Carly Hermanson, Sarah Finebloom, Marc Slager, Rachel Goodson, Carrie O’Rourke, and Chris Finkbeiner are no longer employed by the EOG and therefore, your request should not be directed to this office.”
That didn’t seem right to Andrews, who had documents that showed a standard policy of the governor’s office was to require departing employees to turn over any public records from their private accounts before they left. For example, here’s what Jesse Panuccio, then-acting general counsel for the governor, wrote to MacNamara on July 5, 2012:
“Upon leaving, any public records kept or received in the transaction of official business and over which the departing employee has legal custody shall be delivered to the departing employees’ successor, transferred to EOG services or…the Records Management Liasion Officer of the Executive Office of the Governor…Such public records may include electronic public records created or received by an employee on a personal or non-State server or account.”
So the Andrews served subpoenas on the former employees, some of whom have hired lawyers. They got some of the text messages turned over but wonder how many were deleted that should have been turned over to the state.
“I don’t know if we’re getting all the messages, are they holding some back and are some deleted? How do we even know we’re getting a complete accurate record?” Colleen Andrews said. “The only way to tell is a forensic search ordered by the judge to go into their private accounts.”
Here is a small sampling of some of the text messages that didn’t exist:
* After one of the mansion dinners, Mike Hightower, president of the Mansion Foundation and a lobbyist for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida wrote in a text message to O’Rourke: “Great evening last night. The Gov./First Lady are just awesome!! Thank you for including me in this wonderful Governor’s Mansion Foundation. Must admit..this is just plain fun!!!”
Documents turned over to Andrews show that Hightower signed documents enlisting a real estate brokerage firm to begin to acquire the property for the project, but it barred them from telling the prospective sellers who was buying it from them.
* When AP reporter Gary Fineout got wind of the project to raise money from private donors for the governor’s “legacy project” to improve the Mansion and started asking questions in February 2012, Carol Beck, the mansion director, wrote to O’Rourke, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “Did not confirm or deny.’’ The email was sent from Becks’ private AOL account to O’Rourke’s private Yahoo account.
* “This is foundation business not EOG,” O’Rourke wrote in a text to Beck. “Pls do not use that account moving forward. My personal is…but we should call if they need mote info.” Beck replied: “Got it!”
* Florida Power & Light was being asked to contribute $100,000 to the mansion project but was demanding details on the project, who the other donors were, how the money would be spent. “Shanna called & said fl power won’t cut check unless we provide all the info they require,’’ Beck wrote O’Rourke in a text message Feb. 8, 2012. “Brian thought it best that you & he speak so Shanna asked that you call him thanks!!!”
* Lobbyists and legislators frequently relied on the private cell phone accounts to reach the governor’s staff with the staff often responding with a phone call. U.S. Sugar lobbyist Robert Coker sent O’Rourke a text in March 2012: “Do you have some time today or tomorrow to follow up on our conversation with the Governor on water projects and the budget? I am available on the cell,” he wrote.
* Lobbyst Ron Pierce wrote a text to O’Rourke in January 2012 suggesting the governor should appoint former Senate President Tom Lee secretary of state on the same day the governor announced the appointment of Ken Detzner. “Missed this opportunity,” he wrote. “We should talk on ways Tom may be able to help Governor Scott.”
* In March 2012, Pierce texted O’Rourke again, noting that Lee’s wife had been nominated for a judgeship in Tampa. “President Lee wants to know who in the Governor’s office should calls and letter of support be sent since the Governor’s General counsel’s last day is Friday?”
* Florida Crystals Lobbyists Gaston Cantens in a text to O’Rourke that the governor appoint Ana Carbonell to the South Florida Water Management District.
* Transportation lobbyist Bob Burleson texted O’Rourke expressing concern about the governor asking the Department of Transporation to stop using stipends for design build. “We feel that is mistaske and seriously limiting competition,” he wrote.
* Lobbyist Nick Iarossi sent a February 2012 text saying that John Saputo, of Sarasota, president and owner of Gold Coast Eagle Distributing and a member of the New College board of trustees, was good friends with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan and was “trying to get New College to fire [then-state legislator and political science professor] Keith Fitzgerald bc he is running against Vern evne though he’s been a professor for like 10yeras and we have cut his salary and hours and followed all the procedures of the BOG in handling it.”