A Leon County circuit court judge will soon decide if federal law bars the state from releasing certain records that might reveal more about the Florida International University bridge collapse that killed six people this March.
Judge Kevin J. Carroll heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit over the records, which the Miami Herald filed in May after months of trying to obtain documents regarding the collapse. The requested records include meeting minutes, emails and other documents relating to the bridge’s design and construction.
Though the state has said the records are public under Florida law, it argued that it lost the right to share those records with the news media when it became a party to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation days after the bridge failed. The state Department of Transportation filed a motion to dismiss the suit and cited a federal regulation that shields documents relating to an NTSB investigation, saying it supersedes state statute. The NTSB, which is still investigating the collapse of the 950-ton bridge, has ordered the state agency not to release documents from after Feb. 19.
FIU and the city of Sweetwater, which was also involved in the project, have also cited the ongoing NTSB investigation as an exception to the state’s public records law. The parties have released records to the media earlier than the cut-off date.
The bridge collapsed on the afternoon of March 15, just days after cracks had been observed in the $14.3 million structure. On the morning of the bridge failure, FIU held a two-hour meeting with its engineers and FDOT to discuss whether cracks in the structure presented a safety risk. The Miami Herald requested records from that meeting, as well as other relevant documents.
The federal government had delayed directly weighing in on the lawsuit but filed a statement of intent late Monday supporting the state’s motion to dismiss the case. It reiterated that the federal regulation “prohibits disclosure of the investigative information sought by plaintiffs” before the investigation is complete. NTSB attorney Benjamin T. Allen had previously written in a letter that federal law shielded the release of any records “related to the accident or incident” if the federal safety agency had collected it as part of the ongoing investigation.
But lawyers for the Miami Herald have disputed the NTSB’s interpretation of the federal statute. Scott Ponce of Holland and Knight, the Miami law firm representing the media company, argued Tuesday that the federal regulation being cited does not apply to documents that originated before the bridge collapse and would pertain only to documents that originated as a result of the investigation.
Under Florida law, “if something’s a public record in the first instance, it doesn’t lose its character as a public record,” he said. “It doesn’t become exempt from public inspection simply because it’s later given to a law enforcement agency. That’s, we think, the same thing under this federal regulation we’re dealing with.”
Latasha Johnson, the department’s assistant general counsel, countered that the NTSB’s investigation — and its control of the information in the investigation — needed to encompass events leading up to the bridge collapse.
“When you’re looking at a project that’s been around for several years, that doesn’t start on the date the incident happened,” she said. She added that the federal agency’s “interpretation of their own regulation is entitled to great deference.”
At a hearing Tuesday, Carroll said he needed to decide whether the federal regulation applies to the Herald’s request and preempts the state’s public records law. He declined to rule immediately on the case and asked both sides to provide proposed orders by Thursday.
Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.