State Politics

Taxpayers foot the bill as Scott settles open-government lawsuits

Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Rick Scott Miami

For the second time in a month, Gov. Rick Scott is negotiating a settlement that would use taxpayer dollars to end a lawsuit that claims he violated state Sunshine laws.

According to documents filed in the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee this month, the governor is negotiating with Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews over a lawsuit accusing Scott of skirting state public records laws by using private email accounts to conduct public business. The negotiations began after a California judge ordered Google to turn over information that could reveal whether Scott’s top staff set up the private email accounts to allow the governor to circumvent the state public records law.

How much taxpayers will be on the hook under the settlement has not been disclosed, but it comes on the heels of another settlement in a Sunshine law violation case expected to be approved by the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday. Records show that fees in that case will cost taxpayers in excess of $228,000.

That lawsuit was brought by St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner 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 FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey with no public discussion or vote.

In that settlement announced last week, Scott and the three members of the state Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — would agree to pay $55,000 to the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Andrea Mogensen. They would also agree to revise their policies to operate with more transparency, including turning over their private emails promptly when they conduct public business.

To end the lawsuit, the governor and Cabinet did not acknowledge they violated the law but instead agreed to improve the transparency of their operations, including turning over their private emails promptly when they conduct public business.

Documents obtained by the Herald/Times show lawyers for the three members of the Cabinet were paid at least $173,098 — more than three times as much as Mogensen — to defend against the allegations. Scott’s office has not responded to a request made a week ago to provide the cost of his legal defense in the case.

Weidner, the lead plaintiff in the case, said that the ease with which elected officials use taxpayer money to defend against their own violations of Sunshine law “is chilling.”

“Clearly the fight to enforce the public’s constitutional right comes at a high cost,” he said Monday. “There is no real penalty. Elected officials make a business decision to violate the constitution whenever they want to, and the only threat is a very weak judicial system that has no desire to enforce the laws.”

To defend against Weidner and the media organizations, the governor and Cabinet jointly hired Dan Norby of Shutts and Bowen and paid him $16,087 to date, said a spokesman for Bondi, whose office managed the contract.

Bondi separately also hired George Meros of GrayRobinson and paid his firm $47,128. Atwater hired the Radey law firm in Tallahassee and paid it $109,883 for February through April. And Putnam hired Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart and paid it $10,102. He also used staff attorneys on the case, said Putnam spokeswoman Jennifer Meale.

Taxpayers are likely to face additional costs if the settlement with Andrews, the Tallahassee attorney, is completed. He is suing over records related to a dispute over land near the governor's mansion that Andrews wants to buy. During the course of the litigation, Andrews found records that showed the governor used a private email account to conduct business.

The governor’s office denied it and Andrews got permission from a Tallahassee judge to ask Google about the Gmail accounts set up by Scott and aides. Scott refused to release the information and his lawyers and press spokesmen accused Andrews of “launching personal attacks” and pursuing “baseless arguments.”

The judge ordered the governor to stop fighting the release of the data. After spending $115,000 in taxpayer money defending the lawsuit, Scott hired private lawyers in California to argue against allowing Google to release the information.

Then, after Scott won re-election, his office changed his argument and he stopped denying that the emails existed. They then released hundreds of emails showing that he used a private account to exchange emails with top aides about vetoes, the state budget and his speeches but continued to fight attempts to show who set up the accounts.

In May, a California judge rejected Scott’s argument and ordered Google to turn over the information about who set up Scott’s gov.rls@gmail.com account, and the Gmail accounts of his staff. Before that could happen, however, Scott’s lawyers were back at the negotiating table — this time with Andrews.

Both sides asked the First District Court of Appeal in Tallhassee to postpone a June 16 hearing “to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement agreement.”

Scott, a millionaire former hospitals executive, travels around the state using his private plane at his own expense and refuses to draw a salary. While he has been frugal with his income, he has made several losing bets on lawsuits at taxpayer expense.

In addition to the public records settlements, Florida taxpayers are paying more than $1.5 million in legal fees because of Scott’s decision to force welfare applicants and state workers to submit to drug tests.

The state agreed this month to pay in $600,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which sued Scott on behalf of a single father over the 2011 welfare drug-testing law. In April, the governor’s office also agree to pay the ACLU $375,000 over a lawsuit involving 7,000 state workers who were forced to take the drug tests. The total for both of those cases will cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million including expenses and legal fees.

The governor has had better luck defending against a handful of other lawsuits. The court upheld a teacher merit pay law he signed, and his plan to require state workers to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their retirement was ruled constitutional.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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