A lawsuit accusing Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet of violating the Sunshine Law could be headed toward a settlement, according to parties involved in the case.
WHAT IS THE SUNSHINE LAW?
The Sunshine Law is defined as a law requiring certain proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public.
A former Florida Supreme Court Justice has been brought in to mediate the lawsuit, which claims state officials secretly arranged the ouster of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
But before a settlement is reached, the plaintiffs in the case, including numerous news organizations, will want to hear Bailey tell his story on the record, said Michael Barfield, a paralegal working on the case with Sarasota attorney Andrea Mogensen.
Attorneys on both sides met in a closed-door session on Wednesday.
Barfield said attorneys representing Scott and the Cabinet have so far tried to limit the scope of Bailey’s pending deposition and impose gag orders on the media outlets involved.
“They have been quite sensitive to that,” Barfield said. “And I can understand why.”
In past interviews with the media, Bailey has claimed he was forced out of his position for political reasons. Scott has disputed that.
But already, the controversy has led Scott and the Cabinet to reform the public process for the hiring and firing of agency heads under their joint control.
Meanwhile, the diversion of the Sunshine lawsuit into mediation offers a way to settle the case without a trial. The two sides chose former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding as mediator.
Harding, a shareholder in the Tallahassee law firm Ausley McMullen, has mediated high-profile cases before, including a student conduct hearing for Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston and the recount of the controversial 2000 presidential election.
Mogensen, representing Citizens for Sunshine, a nonprofit group that has advocated for open government across the state but especially around Sarasota and Manatee counties, contends that Scott and Cabinet members violated the Sunshine Law by using staff members as “conduits” to exchange information about the forced resignation of Bailey.
Scott’s office has denied that discussions about Bailey violated state law.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in February, include GateHouse Media, which owns the Herald-Tribune, the Associated Press, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner.
In a recent letter, Mogensen outlined the possible terms of a settlement:
Adoption of policies to keep the Cabinet covered by the Sunshine Law, including a return to the recording and broadcasting Cabinet aides’ meetings.
A prohibition on the use of private email accounts to conduct official business by the governor, Cabinet members, Cabinet aides and senior staff.
A prohibition on using liaisons or conduits to communicate about any official business.
A website to publish, within 24 hours, all emails and text messages about official business by the governor, Cabinet members, their aides and senior staff.
A Sunshine-compliant committee to vet, interview and recommend potential agency heads to the Cabinet.
Void the appointment of Rick Swearingen as head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and conduct a full and open process to appoint a permanent leader.
The formation of an Open Government Commission, similar to the Ethics Commission, with the power to investigate alleged Sunshine Law violations.
Peter Dunbar, the lead attorney representing the Scott and Cabinet, did not return a call seeking comment on the case.
But even as negotiations continue, Barfield said the plaintiffs want Bailey to eventually be deposed, as well as a full accounting of what happened leading to his ouster.
“It has to happen one way or the other,” Barfield said. There can’t be a resolution to the case, he said, “until they know more about what exactly happened.”
Original article here.