There’s an invisible layer of high-level government business conducted every day in the Florida Capitol, a subsurface of information-share that hums along office-to-office, out of the public’s earshot and out of the sunshine.
Some of it is constitutional, some isn’t. That’s been true for at least the last 25 years in Tallahassee and probably long before that.
But it’s taken allegations of political meddling in Commissioner Gerald Bailey’s Florida Department of Law Enforcement — plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face secret interactions between the staffs of the governor and Cabinet — to finally call out violations of state meeting laws that are to me more worrisome than any other aspect of Baileygate.
Most of the questions that need better answers surrounding Bailey’s forced resignation are going to come to light — if not during this week’s Cabinet meeting, then during an independent investigation, or just amid the heavy media scrutiny charging the issue like an electrical storm, particularly in the Herald/Times.
What I’m talking about is something else in Florida government, something beyond collusion in an isolated incident involving what Gov. Rick Scott’s people might have said to Gerald Bailey’s people or the Cabinet members’ staff.
I’m talking about a culture of deliberate secrecy so ingrained in the fabric of daily life in Florida state government that most people living it don’t think twice about it anymore. They find a way around the Sunshine Laws. Senior staff expect it of their employees. That’s why staff — at least all the ones I know who deal with the press on sensitive issues — don’t have to think about it, they know how to communicate privately, in ways unlikely to be found in a public records search. As one aide told me, “We all just stay under the radar. We’re good at it.”
Reporters regularly talk about a culture of secrecy and lack of transparency in covering state government under Scott’s administration. Long delays of public records requests to the executive branch are common and reporters are often forced to make appeals to the same people holding them up.
Some reporters have said they encountered “retribution” for pursuing stories the administration viewed as unfavorable, getting “frozen out” by government officials, having stories leaked to their competitors, or having their access to people working in state government limited.
Yet, I remember times under previous governors — Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, in particular — when reporters made the same complaints. Endless delay in processing requests is a time-honored strategy to keep information from the public.
Come to that, it’s been more than 15 years since a high-level government official actually answered my questions over the phone. That kind of straight-talk is 20th century stuff. It doesn’t happen anymore. Now a reporter — unless he wants to corral an official during a planned, time-restricted hallway “gaggle” — has to submit questions in writing via email, and usually wait for answers to come back the same way.
In the Capitol culture of secrecy, only an agency flack might let himself/herself be quoted because virtually no one has permission to talk. Everybody is afraid for his or her job.
I hope Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, sees the larger story in Baileygate — that the allegations in this case are not a one-trick pony.
“It took the dumping of Bailey to make this come to light,” Petersen told the Times/Herald in a weekend story. “There was a major decision to force the resignation of someone who is respected, then hire someone who isn’t on anyone’s radar screen, and there’s no discussion? It smacks of collusion.”
This is what I believe the lesson in Baileygate is. That conducting the public’s business out of the sunshine is taken for granted, it’s commonplace — happens as a matter of course in Florida’s state government.
And if it seems as if it happens more often, or it’s more blatant, in the administration of the current governor, I suspect it probably is. Rick Scott’s office, like no other in my time, is neurotically selective in what it provides. It’s honed keeping the press out of its hair to a fine art, measuring its printable responses, talking-pointing its way to a position that really isn’t one. You know there’s a truth in there somewhere, but you can’t be sure what or where.
Somebody said to me the other day, “The difference between God and Rick Scott is, God doesn’t think he’s Rick Scott.”
I laughed. I thought it was funny. But that’s a side I’ve seen of most Florida governors — particularly second termers — even some of the governors we now remember as so beloved and respectful of the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
As much good as I think Rick Scott has done for Florida, I personally think he has taken some incredibly bad advice along the way. The fact that nobody else in four years — not his various chiefs of staff or counsels — did much to enlighten him — shy and insular as he was from the start — has only deepened the culture of secrecy in the highest level of state government.
But the governor is exactly where the buck stops. If Baileygate is the tip of an iceberg, Scott IS the iceberg.
It will be interesting to see if someone in the Cabinet — perhaps CFO Jeff Atwater, who has taken the boldest step toward transparency by raising a red flag on Baileygate — can move state government toward greater transparency, top to bottom.