Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Clouds obscure our government in the sunshine

It was more like a poor attempt at abstract art than a public record disclosure. Not that it didn’t reflect a laborious undertaking. Some Florida Department of Corrections bureaucrat, Sharpie in hand, must have risked carpal tunnel syndrome as he blotted out all the pertinent information about a prison inmate’s death.

My colleague, Julie Brown, had been looking into yet another very suspicious death, this latest one at Lowell Correctional Institution. What she received after a DOC public records request were six pages on which “details of incident” had become large black blobs.

About the only thing the wildly redacted Oct. 1 report revealed was a decided lack of enthusiasm in state government for Florida’s open records laws. Of course, reporters, civic activists and public advocates already knew that. Our purported “government in the sunshine” has been looking mighty opaque lately.

Our governor, after failing to persuade a Florida judge to keep his personal — maybe not so personal — e-mails out of the sunshine, has filed suit in Santa Clara, California, trying to keep Google from releasing information about his e-mail accounts. At least until after the November election.

The Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas reported this week that Rick Scott’s lawyers have gone to California to fend off a subpoena from Tallahassee lawyer Steven Andrews, who has sued for access to those emails, charging that the governor and his staff have exchanged information about important public business using private accounts. Andrews claims that the private accounts give the governor and his staff a sneaky way to circumvent the state’s public records law. Scott’s lawyers countered that Andrews was only on a “fishing expedition.”

In August, a Leon County circuit court judge had ordered Google and Yahoo to comply with Andrew’s request for information about certain email accounts established by Scott and his staff. So Scott’s lawyers went to the courts in California to stop the disclosure, requesting a Nov. 7 hearing into the matter — which, conveniently, would be three days after the gubernatorial election.

There has been a lot of suspicion about the Scott administration’s regard for public disclosure laws since 2011 when one of his top lieutenants responded to an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson with an email from her personal account, telling the senator’s office, “I rarely check and almost never respond to work e-mail because of the open records law.”

It didn’t help the governor’s credibility in matters regarding state transparency laws that reporters found jarring discrepancies between his federal and state financial disclosures. The Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas and Marc Caputo discovered that in 2011, for instance, Scott reported $41,891,063 more in net income to the IRS than he disclosed on his state disclosure forms. They also found that the governor has much more control than folks were led to believe about the investments in his so-called “blind trusts,” where he has stashed the bulk of his fortune.

It’s not only the governor showing contempt for open records. State universities flout open government laws by creating private corporations to handle endeavors — public business — historically conducted by school employees. When the Associated Press put in records requests for staff salaries, donors and contracts from more than 30 of the state’s university “corporations,” not a single one of these pseudo-private outfits complied with all three requests. Fourteen offered up zilch. The Florida International University Athletic Finance Corporation didn’t even bother to respond.

Or public entities get around public records requests by making them utterly unaffordable. Last summer, when the Center for Public Integrity put in a public records request to Florida’s 17th judicial circuit — the Broward County courts — court officials said sure, we’ll comply – if you pay us $132,348.

When the non-profit made a similar request in the 14th Circuit, in the Florida panhandle, the charge was $436.87. The Third District charged $148.11. The Second Circuit, in Leon County, estimated the cost at $76.65. Court officials in the Eighth district said there would be no charge.

Apparently, there are still a few places in Florida that respect the state’s open records tradition. Call it mostly cloudy. With just a chance of sunshine.