The Florida Society of News Editors, the Associated Press and St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner have filed a lawsuit accusing Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members of violating the state’s open meetings law by secretly orchestrating a top law enforcement official’s removal from office.
The lawsuit, along with a statewide open government group’s call Wednesday for a special prosecutor, adds new dimensions to the controversy over Scott’s decision to force Gerald Bailey to resign as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Filed late Tuesday in state court in Tallahassee, the lawsuit alleges that Scott and all three Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — used their staff members as conduits and “polled, discussed and exchanged communications” before “the forced resignation and replacement of the FDLE commissioner.”
The board of the Florida Society of News Editors includes representatives of many media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald.
Scott and the Cabinet meet at 9 a.m. Thursday at the state fairgrounds in Tampa to discuss procedures for hiring and firing officials who jointly report to them.
“It feels like there’s a real crisis in the legitimacy of this state government,” said Weidner. Noting that all three Republican Cabinet members have criticized how Scott’s office ousted Bailey, he said: “You have the major players all acknowledging that something is wrong.”
The lawsuit asks a state judge to declare that all Cabinet meetings are subject to the Sunshine Law and seeks to enjoin Scott and the Cabinet from conducting any future meetings in private.
Scott and the Cabinet members declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The First Amendment Foundation, an open government advocacy group backed by most of Florida’s newspapers including the Times and Herald, urged Bondi to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the circumstances of Bailey’s ouster.
In a letter to Bondi, Foundation president Barbara Petersen questioned the impartiality of Willie Meggs, the state prosecutor in Tallahassee who rejected a request by Weidner to investigate whether the Sunshine Law was violated.
“You have called for an outside investigation and expressed your own concern that this state’s Sunshine Law might have been violated,” Petersen wrote to Bondi. “The Foundation supports the appointment of an independent state attorney from outside Leon County to investigate this matter, to consider whether criminal charges should be brought and to issue a written report with findings.”
Weidner initially asked Meggs to investigate, but he declined. About two weeks earlier, Meggs was an invited dinner guest of Scott’s at the Governor’s Mansion along with several others, including Rick Swearingen, Bailey’s replacement as FDLE chief; Pete Antonacci, Scott’s former general counsel who told Bailey his career was over; Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee; and Corrections Secretary Julie Jones.
Meggs and Montford have said the dinner was social, with no discussion of official business.
As the state’s chief legal officer, Bondi is responsible for interpretations of Florida’s Sunshine Laws. She called for an outside investigation last week, but had no comment on Petersen’s letter.
By law, Scott and the Cabinet are a collegial body. They must conduct public business in public and are prohibited from engaging in private discussions about matters that may come before them. A violation of the Sunshine Law is a second-degree misdemeanor.
Scott has said his Cabinet aides told the three Cabinet members’ aides that he wanted new leadership at FDLE and that they did not object.
“My staff sat down with the staff of the other Cabinet officers. None of them objected,” Scott told a Fort Myers TV station last week.
Bailey was told to “retire or resign” on Dec. 16. Later Bailey accused Scott and his staff of repeated interference in FDLE’s day-to-day operations, including ordering him to falsely name an Orange County court clerk as a target of a criminal investigation. Scott has called most of Bailey’s accusations untrue.
His removal has never been discussed in a public meeting.
The crux of the lawsuit is whether staff members’ private conversations are Sunshine Law violations because they resulted in an official action. Bailey has said that Antonacci told him he was acting with the “concurrence” of all three Cabinet members, which Scott’s office has not denied.
“The governor violated the Sunshine Law by using conduits to engage in polling, discussions, communications and other exchanges with other members of the Cabinet regarding his unilateral decision to force the resignation of the FDLE commissioner and appoint a replacement without any notice to the public, without any opportunity for the public to attend, and without any minutes being taken,” the suit states.
Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Tampa Bay Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.