Florida Statute 286.011 states that any official who knowingly violates Florida’s open meetings law is guilty of a crime, a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to six months in prison.
Did Gov. Rick Scott and his staff violate that law, knowingly? What about members of the Florida Cabinet?
We may never know.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, says it’s exceptionally difficult, and legally costly, to bring a Sunshine Law complaint. If the complainant wins, attorneys fees are paid by the public, not by the guilty party. If they lose, the complainant is on the hook for their own legal costs.
“This is the weakness in our law — there isn’t an agency or office in Florida responsible for enforcing our constitutional (and statutory) right of access to the records and meetings of our government. This means that we — the public — are forced into court when there’s a violation, or possible violation, of our right of access to the records and meetings of our government,” Petersen notes.
She adds that only one instance of willful violation of that law has ever been successfully prosecuted. It involved W.D. Childers, a former Senate president from Pensacola-turned Escambia County Commissioner, who was accused of passing out bribes to get his county to buy an old sports complex. A fellow commissioner actually described being handed a collard-green cook pot full of cash, about $100,000 worth, to vote for the deal. Along with the meetings law violation, there were bribery and corruption charges.
Would the secret ouster of the state’s top police officer, one responsible for overseeing investigations of corruption and official misconduct, rise to that level? Some would say yes.
But Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs told the Associated Press Friday that because the attorney’s complaint is based on media reports of a Sunshine Law violation, rather than first-hand personal knowledge, he’s not taking the case.
The fact that an investigation could ensnare the state’s most powerful politicians, and possibly a respected fellow attorney, wasn’t offered as a reason. But the public can read between the lines.
Petersen says Meggs has set “an impossible and unreasonable bar” for prosecution of Sunshine Law violations if only eye-witnesses may bring a complaint.
“I’m deeply dismayed and disappointed by Willie Meggs’ assertion that he can’t prosecute a sunshine violation without an eyewitness — isn’t that exactly what the sunshine law is meant to address? Backroom deals made in smoke-filed rooms? By requiring an eyewitness, Meggs has set an impossible and unreasonable bar for potential sunshine violations… I would like Meggs to reconsider his decision and let a grand jury decide this issue. Either that or ask the Governor to appoint a special prosecutor. I think he and too many other government officials forget that this is a constitutional right and if our elected state attorney won’t pursue potential violations then who will?”
Original article here.