TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and all three Cabinet members have assembled an army of legal firepower at taxpayer expense to defend themselves against charges they violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
Forced to defend the removal of state law enforcement commissioner Gerald Bailey with no public vote, the four officials have retained nearly a dozen lawyers each charging up to $400 an hour. That will put taxpayers on the hook for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for a controversy in which Scott has said, “I could have handled it better.”
And if Scott and the Cabinet lose, taxpayers also would have to pay all the fees and costs for the sole lawyer who sued them on behalf of First Amendment groups and news outlets, including theTampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.
What’s at issue is a state law that requires collegial bodies to make decisions in public.
Media outlets seek a declaration from a judge that Scott and Cabinet members violated the Sunshine Law in ousting Bailey. They also want a permanent injunction preventing Scott, the Cabinet and their Cabinet aides from holding private talks in advance of future votes.
By law, Scott and Cabinet members have in-house counsel. But they can also hire outside counsel at taxpayer expense when sued for actions made in the course of duty.
The lawyer representing the media groups, Andrea Flynn Mogensen of Sarasota, accuses lawyers for Scott and Cabinet members of using legal tactics to delay the first big step in the case: taking Bailey’s sworn deposition.
In addition to Scott, the defendants are Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. All are Republicans.
Atwater is a likely candidate for U.S. Senate next year if Sen. Marco Rubio does not seek a second term, and Putnam is a likely candidate for governor in 2018.
Bondi, who oversees about 400 lawyers as attorney general, enlisted the $360-per-hour legal services of George Meros, who’s defending the Legislature in a lengthy legal dispute over the 2012 redrawing of political districts.
“We did not violate the Sunshine Laws, and we look forward to more transparency in the process,” Bondi said.
Atwater hired three members of the law firm of Radey Thomas Yon & Clark, led by Christopher Lunny, who charges the state $295 an hour. Atwater’s office estimates that costs could total $100,000.
“Someone should be dedicated to this matter uniquely with their time and their energy,” Atwater said.
Putnam hired David Wells of Gunster Yoakley & Stewart for $275 an hour, up to $50,000.
Scott hired the most legal firepower. He has retained four lawyers, including Carlos Muniz, a former chief of staff to Bondi, along with three members of the Dean Mead firm, led by Pete Dunbar, a former Pinellas County legislator, general counsel to Gov. Bob Martinez and, for decades, a Tallahassee lobbyist. Dunbar’s fee is $400 an hour.
Scott referred questions about his legal strategy to his in-house counsel, Tim Cerio. Scott’s office did not respond to two requests by the Times/Herald to interview Cerio.
All three Cabinet members quickly fulfilled a Times/Herald public records request by furnishing copies of contracts with law firms with estimates for total costs. Scott’s office provided less-detailed purchase orders after a 21/2-week delay.
Scott’s lead lawyer, Dunbar, said he’s trying to find common ground with media outlets. Such settlement talks are common in civil cases, but they often do not produce agreement.
“It’s my opinion that the two sides may not be that far apart,” Dunbar said. “I perceive it as my obligation to get into a dialogue to resolve those differences.”
Said Mogensen: “Just because we’re having settlement negotiations does not mean we’re not going to proceed with vigor.”
The sheer number of lawyers is making it difficult to schedule depositions. Mogensen wants to take sworn statements of Bailey, who accused Scott of lying by claiming that he resigned after a glowing three-decade career at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Bailey said Scott’s former counsel, Pete Antonacci, forced him out by claiming that the three Cabinet members privately agreed to dismiss him, even though Bailey’s job status was never publicly discussed.
Antonacci again declined to comment Thursday.
Mogensen said Dunbar and other lawyers for the state want to delay taking the deposition of Bailey, who’s expected to repeat the version of events he provided to the Times/Herald.
“They refuse to set the deposition for Mr. Bailey,” Mogensen said. “The crickets keep chirping every time we request dates.”
Dunbar said a sticking point in the case is that the Cabinet, as a collegial body subject to the Sunshine Law, is named as a defendant, but it has no legal representation and is “nebulous” as a legal entity, he said.
“You need to resolve, as quickly as possible, the issues relating to the fifth defendant,” he said.
Mogensen called that another stalling tactic. “Any collegial body typically retains an attorney,” she said.
This is Scott’s second trip to the courthouse in a case involving allegations of secrecy. In a separate, ongoing case, he produced 197 pages of emails from a private email account after claiming the emails did not exist. The governor’s office called that an oversight.
Dunbar is also Scott’s lead lawyer in that case, at the same $400 hourly rate.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.