Gov. Rick Scott and all three elected Cabinet members will agree to more transparency and training to end a lawsuit by news outlets accusing them of backroom dealings that violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
The compromise agreement ends the suit by more than a dozen media organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, that accused all four statewide officials of circumventing the open meetings law in the orchestrated removal of Gerald Bailey as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“This is a case about transparency,” said Sarasota lawyer Andrea Flynn Mogensen, who represented news outlets and other plaintiffs, including Matthew Weidner, a St. Petersburg lawyer, in the case of Weidner vs. Scott. “They’re agreeing to greater transparency, which one would think any politician would want to be in favor of. Very few of their constituents would be opposed to that.”
As Bailey was preparing to give sworn testimony in which he planned to repeat his account of his removal that he first made to the Times/Herald, both sides agreed to closed-door negotiations that were mediated by Major Harding, a retired chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
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By law, details of mediation sessions are confidential but terms of the settlement and its eight specific conditions were released Monday. The settlement is binding when Scott and the Cabinet approve it at their next meeting on June 23. Among the conditions:
▪ Scott and Cabinet members must “promptly” forward all public records sent to private email accounts to their state email accounts, so that they can be captured by requests for those records.
▪ No agenda item can be considered at a Cabinet meeting unless a written request is made to the governor or the issue has been discussed at a Cabinet meeting.
▪ Expanded Sunshine Law training for the governor, Cabinet members and their staffs will include a declaration that Scott and the Cabinet are bound by the Sunshine Law, but staff members are not unless they are being used “as a liaison to communicate information on Cabinet matters.”
▪ A circuit judge will retain jurisdiction of the agreement in case Scott or Cabinet members violate it.
Four other conditions in the settlement are already in effect after being approved by Scott and the Cabinet.
After the lawsuit was filed, they agreed to require additional annual Sunshine Law training for themselves, key staff members and Cabinet aides; all meetings of Cabinet aides must be recorded and posted on the Cabinet’s web site; the appointment of Bailey’s successor, FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, is subject to a second public discussion and vote; and new personnel guidelines adopted in March require public interviews of finalists for vacancies at state agencies whose leaders jointly report to the governor and Cabinet.
The media organizations’ lawsuit, filed in February, was based largely on reports by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau about the events that led Scott’s staff to orchestrate Bailey’s removal from office without a vote or public discussion on Dec. 16, even though Bailey reported to the governor and Cabinet members.
Bailey said he was told by Scott’s former chief counsel, Pete Antonacci, to retire or resign during a tense meeting at FDLE headquarters in Tallahassee on Dec. 16 and Antonacci did not dispute Bailey’s account.
After Scott said Bailey resigned, Bailey publicly accused Scott of lying, and he later made allegations of repeated political interference in FDLE operations by Scott’s staff or his campaign.
Scott said he told his Cabinet aide to inform the others’ aides that he wanted “new leadership” at FDLE at the start of his second term. But Cabinet members later said they were blindsided by the abrupt decision to oust Bailey.
The three Cabinet members subject to the agreement are Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
Scott was flying home from the Paris Air Show Monday and his office had no immediate comment on the settlement. In March, Scott took responsibility for Bailey’s ouster and said: “I could have handled it better.”
Bondi and Atwater did not immediately comment and Putnam said through a spokesman that he “looks forward to an open, public discussion” at next week’s Cabinet meeting.
As part of the proposed settlement, the Cabinet and Scott would also pay Mogensen’s firm $55,000 in fees and costs.