A Sarasota attorney known for her litigation of area open government cases will take the lead in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.
Andrea Mogensen represents the nonprofit Citizens for Sunshine in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, which claims that Scott violated the state’s Sunshine Law in communicating with Cabinet members about a controversial change in leadership at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Also joining the suit were the Associated Press, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner, who has called for an investigation of the replacement of FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
Disagreements over how Bailey left his position in December have grown to involve other members of the state Cabinet and attracted statewide media attention. The case, filed in the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County, seeks a ruling that the Florida Cabinet is subject to the Sunshine Law and a prohibition on polling members about appointments and communicating decisions to them before meetings.
Mogensen often represents Citizens for Sunshine, which has advocated for open government across the state. Most often the group files cases in and around Sarasota and Manatee counties. Citizens for Sunshine became a plaintiff in the case because it involved citizen access to government decision-making.
“That’s the purpose of the group — government transparency,” Mogensen said. The group hoped the case would expose to the public a “pervasive” evasion of the Sunshine Law in the state’s executive branch, she said.
Bailey resigned in December and has publicly contradicted Scott’s version of events. Scott and other members of the Cabinet unanimously confirmed his replacement, Rick Swearingen, in January. Since then, Scott and Cabinet members have been criticized over the details of Bailey’s ouster.
Scott said that the commissioner resigned, only to have Bailey contradict him in statements to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau, saying “I did not voluntarily do anything.”
Since then, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam have voiced displeasure with how the matter was handled. Attorney General Pam Bondi said she thought Scott’s staff may have acted without the governor’s knowledge.
The FDLE commissioner position is a Cabinet-level appointment. Florida law requires the governor and the Cabinet, including Putnam, Atwater and Bondi, to agree on firing the leader of the FDLE.
The Cabinet is scheduled to discuss the process it uses to replaces appointees when it meets Thursday in Tampa.
Scott’s office has countered claims that his staff pushed Bailey to resign immediately in December.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday acknowledges that the FDLE commissioner serves “at the pleasure” of the governor and the Cabinet, but claims that the decision was made in a roundabout manner behind closed doors and then presented in public only after Bailey resigned.
The complaint accuses Scott of using aides or “conduits” in polling the cabinet on “his unilateral decision to force the resignation of the FDLE Commissioner and appoint a replacement without any notice to the public.”
The aides’ communications were allegedly achieved verbally, allowing the Cabinet to signal Scott their approval, or non-objection, to removing Bailey and replacing him with Swearingen as commissioner.
Those communications amounted to a “de facto meeting of the cabinet,” the lawsuit alleges, in which no notice was given to the public and no minutes or other records kept.
In responses to the media, Scott’s office has defended its handling of Bailey’s resignation, citing a “long-standing convention” of communication between the governor’s office and the Cabinet. Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Mogensen said the public should be concerned that the governor described this as a common practice in Tallahassee.
“If this is the way things are traditionally done, then the law really has no teeth and we don’t have the transparency in government guaranteed by the constitution.”
The suit asks that a court declare the episode violated the Sunshine Law and issue a permanent injunction against “polling, discussions, and communications” about appointments before public cabinet meetings. It also asks for payment of attorneys’ fees if the suit prevails.
Original article here.