On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, late in the day, two veteran Tallahassee reporters finally received important public records from the office of Gov. Rick Scott. They had had requested the records, emails, more than three months prior, many weeks before Scott won a narrow re-election victory over former Gov. Charlie Crist.
While candidates might prefer to control the timing of a damaging news report — say, until after an election — Florida law doesn’t provide for that level of control where the release of public records are concerned.
Florida’s Sunshine Law, Florida Statute 119, states that “providing access to public records is a duty of each agency,” and “each agency must provide reasonable public access to records electronically maintained.”
It’s hard to imagine any judge would view such a delay, until after an election, to be “reasonable public access,” especially in the era when “search” and “forward” take minutes. Alas, the journalists didn’t take the matter before a judge.
The records, we now know, concerned bread-and-butter issues Scott handles in his official capacity as governor: the budget, speeches to be delivered, vetoes to be considered. They have proven important, though less for their content than for their very existence.
That’s because they had been sent through Scott’s now-defunct private Gmail account instead of his state email account, and when asked previously whether he had used private email to do state business, Scott insisted he did not.
There’s nothing illegal about doing public business with private emails, per se, but in Florida, those private emails, if about state business, must be produced, as almost any government communications must be.
The secret emails came to light after a Tallahassee lawyer involved in a property dispute found evidence that public business was being done through the private accounts. A judge gave him permission to ask Google about the accounts, but Scott has hired lawyers to fight that request, the AP reported.
Fineout and The Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas both asked for Scott’s official-business emails from his private accounts. And then they waited. And waited.
When the emails finally arrived — after the election — some had come from his press aides, and many were between Scott and his former chief of staff, Stephen MacNamara (who later resigned after news reports that he had facilitated a no-bid contract worth $360,000 to a friend who went on to head a commission charged with rooting out government waste).
Open government is enshrined in the Florida Constitution. It should never take the government three months to fulfill a simple public records request. Do you agree?