Gov. Rick Scott has agreed to spend $700,000 in taxpayer money to settle seven public records lawsuits alleging he and several members of his staff violated state law when they created email accounts to shield their communications from state public records laws and then withheld the documents.
The lawsuits were filed by Steven R. Andrews, a Tallahassee attorney who has been embroiled in litigation with Scott since 2012, when the governor wanted the state to buy a building in which Andrews’ firm is located near the governor’s mansion.
The settlement, first obtained by the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau, is precedent-setting in that it is the first time in state history that a sitting governor and attorney general have been sued successfully for violations of Florida’s public records laws. It is also the third legal defeat in recent months for the governor, and the second time he has agreed to use state dollars to end a lawsuit against him. Also signing the agreement is Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Scott and the Cabinet in June agreed to pay $55,000 to St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner, open government advocacy groups and several media organizations, including the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, who accused Scott and the Cabinet of violating the state’s open meeting laws when they allowed staff to use back channels to oust former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey with no public discussion or vote.
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“We settled, and it was the right thing to do for the state,” said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz.
Andrews would not comment.
“It is clear this governor has made a calculated decision that violating the constitutional rights is the cost of doing business — a cost he doesn’t have to bear,” said Weidner, whose case against the governor and Cabinet was settled in July. “While these numbers are shocking, you can’t calculate the cost to citizens of the state for government that is operating in darkness. The real costs will be borne in years to come for a government that operates in contempt for fundamental right to records.”
The Weidner case has cost the state more than $225,000 in legal fees, not including the legal fees from the governor’s office. Scott’s office has not disclosed how much they state money was spent to defend the governor in either the Weidner case or the Andrews lawsuits, despite repeated requests from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for the state’s Sunshine laws, was also disappointed in the governor.
“Gov. Scott, while touting fiscal restraint and conservatism, has played fast and loose with our constitutional right of access to our government and we Floridians are paying the price, both literally and figuratively,” she said.
Andrews first sued the governor and Cabinet for violating a contract he had to purchase the building in 2012 and, in the process of trying to obtain emails and documents relating to the case, he discovered evidence that the governor and his staff had set up a series of private Gmail accounts and used them to conduct public business.
After numerous attempts to obtain details from the email accounts relating to his case, Andrews sued the governor, alleging he not only withheld documents but engaged in “actively concealing them” and “conspiring with others” to conceal them.
Andrews found that in March 2013, Scott’s former chief of staff emailed the governor’s private account, to urge him to appoint state Sen. John Thrasher as lieutenant governor. Before that, in January 2012, a deputy chief of staff sent a text message to the Department of Education’s secretary that said, “Gov just shot me an email that you called. Did you need more clarification from our end?”
Neither of these emails, appeared in records requests fulfilled by the governor’s office when Andrews requested them, but lawyers for the governor and attorney general repeatedly argued they had turned over all relevant documents.
Scott’s former general counsel, Pete Antonacci, also claimed that the state was no longer the custodian of the records held in the private email accounts of the governor’s former staff, delaying discovery during last year’s heated political campaign.
Andrews was forced to individually sue former members of the governor’s executive staff — Brad Piepenbrink, Chris Finkbeiner, Sarah Hansford, Carly Hermanson and Carrie O’Rourke. He also took the case to California where he got a judge to order Google to turn over the computer IP addresses for all correspondence to and from the governor’s private Gmail account.
Asked by reporters if he or his staffers used the accounts to discuss public business privately, Scott issued a blanket denial.
“Absolutely not. We follow the law,” he said. He called Andrews “just an individual that sues the state, tries to cause problems.”
After a California judge ordered Google to turn over the documents, a trial in the case was scheduled for June. That’s when the governor and his lawyers began settlement negotiations, according to court records.
The deal now ends those cases, and Andrews agrees to “permanently abandon and forgo any and all rights to access those records” and refrain from deposing the governor’s staffers about them.
On Wednesday, the governor and Cabinet agreed to settle Andrews’ first lawsuit — which will allow Andrews to purchase the building and allow the state to buy an adjacent lot for parking near the mansion.
After that vote, Andrews agreed to the settlement to dismiss his remaining pending lawsuits, including a case scheduled for trial last month, in return for a payment. According to the settlement, the bulk of the money to end the litigation — $445,000 — will come from the DEP budget, another $120,000 will come out of the governor’s office, $75,000 will come from the office of the attorney general and $60,000 will come from the Department of State.
The governor’s office provided no explanation as to how they determined how to apportion payment of damages.
Mary Ellen Klas is Tallahassee bureau chief. She can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas