Gov. Rick Scott, who recently settled seven lawsuits at taxpayers’ expense that accused him of violating Florida public records laws, has adopted a new records policy that’s drawing criticism.
Under the policy that took effect July 1, Scott’s office now responds to public records requests from private citizens and news outlets by posting the documents on his website. Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said the goal is to improve transparency and make it easier for the public to get records.
Attorney Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said Scott’s new policy clashes with the spirit of Florida’s public records law and ignores a bigger problem: Records are not provided for weeks or months.
“I wish only that the governor and his staff would spend their time expediting access to public records rather than posting the requested records online,” Petersen said. “I don’t think this policy improves transparency in any way, frankly.”
Scott is the first Florida governor to answer public records requests online, rather than send them to the person who asked for them. Attorney Carol LoCicero of Tampa, a member of the foundation’s board, said the policy accomplishes nothing.
“I don’t find this a very productive transparency mechanism,” LoCicero said. Real transparency, she said, would be for Scott to voluntarily post more records online — such as emails, memos and travel records — without formal requests.
One First Amendment expert who praised the change is Sarasota lawyer Andrea Flynn Mogensen, who represented more than a dozen news outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, in a recently settled lawsuit accusing Scott and Cabinet members of violating Florida’s open meetings law.
“I think it is a good step as I suppose a requestor could accept the responsive documents online and save on the cost of duplication,” Mogensen said. “Further, the rest of us could view who was requesting what and what responsive documents are provided. I am quite pleased to see that they are considering transparency and compliance with the [public records] act.”
Mogensen sued Scott and the Cabinet in February over their handling of the dismissal of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, who lost his job after private conversations among aides, with no public discussion.
As part of the settlement in that case, Scott, Cabinet members and their top aides must receive extra training in state public records and open meetings laws.
Scott’s web site, flgov.com/open_government, lists 59 requests for records that have been met since July 1. Nine more sets of records appeared Wednesday evening — the most in one day since July 1 — after this article appeared online.
By posting the requests, the policy shows what information reporters want and how much time Scott’s office took to produce records.
On June 8, Tallahassee TV reporter Mike Vasilinda sought travel vouchers filed by Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera for the first five months of this year. A month later, on July 7, Scott’s office posted 27 pages of records online. Vasilinda said he had to request the documents three times.
Mori Hosseini, a Republican fundraiser, developer and Scott supporter, wanted a copy of Orlando lawyer Lindsay Oyewale’s application for reappointment to the Seminole County Housing Authority. Records indicate he got it the day he asked for it.
On June 22, reporter Noah Pransky of WTSP Channel 10 in Tampa requested documents that Scott’s office produced as part of his seven-city “tax cut tour” promoting a cut in the tax on cellphones and satellite TV services.
A month later, Scott’s office posted 360 pages of documents, including the estimated “publicity value” of local news coverage of Scott in every TV station in Florida and emails showing the coordination between staff members in Miami to record a “chant video” for online use.
The chant in English and Spanish at Sergio’s restaurant in Doral was “Cut my taxes! Recorta mis impuestos!”
Scott last week agreed to pay $700,000 in taxpayer money to attorney Steve Andrews to end seven lawsuits that accused the governor and several of his staff members of illegally using private email accounts for state business. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi settled the case after a judge directed Google to produce the emails from private Gmail accounts.
Scott’s widely documented struggle to comply with Florida’s public records law began even before he took office.
During Scott’s two-month transition to office after he won the 2010 election for governor, staff members failed to keep thousands of email messages and other records as required by law. An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found no evidence of “malicious or criminal intent.”