The Florida Department of Transportation must release public records that could shed light on a deadly bridge collapse outside Miami, a judge ruled Tuesday.
In an order, Leon County state court judge Kevin Carroll said the documents were public records under Florida law and could not be withheld, as FDOT argued, because of an ongoing federal investigation into the March 15 collapse of the Florida International University bridge. It’s not yet clear if FDOT will appeal.
The Miami Herald sued FDOT in May after the state agency refused to release documents related to the collapse, which killed six people. The documents sought by the Herald could help answer whether authorities considered closing the busy road that ran under the bridge after they discovered the span was developing alarming cracks — and if they did consider closure, whether somebody vetoed the idea.
A veil of government-mandated secrecy has surrounded the fatal accident. FDOT has said it could not release the records because of orders from the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency investigating the collapse. The NTSB told FDOT not to release records dating from after Feb. 19, according to both agencies. FIU and the city of Sweetwater, which were also involved in the project, have similarly refused to release records, citing the NTSB’s instruction.
Shortly after the collapse of the under-construction bridge, FDOT gave the records sought by the Herald to NTSB investigators. In court, FDOT’s lawyers said that federal regulations prevented it from publicly releasing any information given to the NTSB, essentially trumping Florida’s broad public-records law. The NTSB did not join the case, although federal lawyers filed a “statement of interest” saying the release of records could harm its investigation.
But Carroll shot down those arguments in his ruling Tuesday.
Carroll said the documents requested by the Herald were public records and did not stop becoming public records when state authorities handed them over to the NTSB. In addition, he said federal regulations cited by FDOT did not apply to the bridge records.
“Simply put, under Florida law, it is clear that furnishing a document [which was a public record when it was made or created record] to an investigating agency would not alter its status as a public record and it would remain available for inspection,” Carroll wrote.
FDOT “apparently takes a position that .... as soon as those records were obtained by NTSB, they became ‘investigative information’ and cannot be disclosed,” the opinion stated. “The court does not agree.”
Carroll also cited a recent precedent stemming from another public-records case involving the Herald and other media organizations. In that case, a Florida appeals court ruled that surveillance video from the Parkland school shooting must be released to the media, even though it had previously been given to investigators.
On Tuesday, FDOT said it was “reviewing the judge’s ruling in coordination” with the NTSB. NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil said the agency was “conferring with the Department of Justice about possible next steps.”
An appeal would delay the release of records. Under Florida law, FDOT has 48 hours to furnish the records or file for an appeal.
Scott Ponce, an attorney for the Herald, said the judge’s ruling shows “the federal regulation simply does not say what the department wants it to say.”
“The judge also recognized the fact that — as an appellate court recently ruled in a case involving records relating to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — a public record is not removed from public view simply because it is later given to a law enforcement agency as part of a subsequent investigation,” Ponce said.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the ruling was “a very positive and important statement” for Florida’s public-records law.
“It’s a very strong affirmative statement that a state agency cannot avoid disclosure simply by transferring public records to another agency,” Petersen said.
FDOT has previously suggested it is willing to release the records but cannot do so without NTSB approval as long as it remains a cooperating “party” in the federal investigation.
“FDOT maintains its belief that these records are public,” FDOT spokesman Tom Yu said in a May statement.
The NTSB has argued that its investigations can be “harmed” by the disclosure of information.
“Once the direction and focus of an ongoing investigation is revealed, evidence can disappear, and witnesses change their stories,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for North Florida wrote in a filing on behalf of the NTSB. “Additionally, once information is prematurely released, the parties to the investigation face increased public pressure to comment and defend themselves to the media.”
Carroll’s decision may also help the Herald obtain records from FIU, which primarily managed the bridge project, and Sweetwater.
In its case against FDOT, the Herald is seeking minutes and other records from a meeting held the morning of the collapse and attended by FIU and FDOT officials, as well the private contractors building the bridge.
Large cracks had been discovered in the structure — which may have been suffering from a critical design flaw — and the meeting was called to discuss them.
In the absence of documents, it’s impossible to determine how seriously the cracks were taken as a safety hazard and whether anyone in the meeting argued that Southwest Eighth Street, which runs under the bridge, should have been shut down. The road stayed open and five unsuspecting motorists, as well as one worker, were killed when the bridge fell down soon after the meeting ended.