Even for someone who has amply shown contempt for open government, Rick Scott’s latest failure to play by the rules is outrageous. The governor has agreed to pay $700,000 — in state funds — to settle seven public-records lawsuits involving alleged violations of Florida’s public-records law.
That’s our money that the governor is using to get out of a jam involving an arrogant attempt to prevent the public from seeing communications with his staff.
The case involved the governor’s secret plan to have the Cabinet buy a building near the governor’s mansion. Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews, who had an interest in the property, sued to find out what the governor was up to. The case turned up private email accounts used for government business between Mr. Scott and his staff, after he adamantly denied such accounts existed.
When Google was ordered to turn over all relevant documents — potentially exposing more emails wrongfully hidden from the public — the governor realized the jig was up. He decided to settle.
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The upshot: The governor violated the public’s constitutional right of access, and the people of Florida now have the privilege of paying $700,000 — for his denial of information to them. In other words, the public is both the injured party and the party liable for paying damages for the injury.
This is what the Sunshine State has come to under Mr. Scott, who is believed to be the first sitting governor of Florida to be successfully sued for violations of the state Constitution. And it gets worse.
First, there has not been a full public accounting of how much state money was used to defend the governor in the Andrews case, despite repeated requests from this newspaper and others, as befits a serial stonewaller.
Second, the governor and Cabinet have also agreed to settle a case involving violation of the open-meetings law for the abrupt ouster of Gerald Bailey, former commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, with no public discussion or vote.
So far, this case has cost the state more than $225,000 in legal fees, not including the legal fees from the governor’s office, which, of course, he refuses to disclose. When all is said and done, the bill may be much higher.
And here is the final indignity: The $700,000 settlement in the Andrews case will include $120,000 from the governor’s office, $60,000 from the Department of State and $75,000 from the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi. But the bulk of the money, $445,000, will come from the Department of Environmental Protection.
Why DEP? Because DEP is flush, thanks to the voters’ overwhelming approval of Amendment 1, which sets aside money to protect Florida’s natural resources. Like Willie Sutton, Mr. Scott knows where the money is.
Rick Scott should own up to his misdeeds, make amends to the people of Florida and pay for the settlement and legal costs out of his own pocket, just like he paid $76 million of his own money to get elected in 2010. It won’t fix the damage to the state’s proud tradition of open government, but it places the penalty on the responsible party.
Don’t look to Attorney General Bondi for help. She’s been the governor’s handmaiden in all this. But we’re disappointed in the silence of Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam and CFO Jeff Atwater, the other two members of the Cabinet. Both are said to harbor political ambitions. Is Rick Scott the model they plan to emulate?