Gov. Scott no champion of state transparency

Miami Herald Editorial Board

The latest twist on the amazing Pitbull payment saga comes from Gov. Rick Scott, who on Friday called for Visit Florida’s CEO Will Seccombe to resign for trying mightily but vainly to keep secret the terms of a contract with the Miami music star to promote Florida beaches. This is a major about-face for a governor who has been no friend of transparency in government. Given that the governor sets the budget for this agency, Mr. Seccombe’s fate is sealed.

On Thursday, Pitbull released terms of the secret deal on Twitter, showing he made $1 million from Visit Florida to publicize the state’s tourism attractions on social media, in a music video and at live concerts. But he made the information public only after Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued the music star’s production company to force him to release the details.

Mr. Scott could have ended this controversy months ago. Transparency advocates began clamoring for release of the information, to which they were plainly entitled, as soon as it became clear that the public that coughed up the money in the form of taxes would be kept in the dark about the amount being spent to inform all those people who’ve been living under a rock that Florida has great beaches.

Instead, he chose to keep quiet while Mr. Seccombe steadfastly refused to divulge the payment amount. The deal with Pitbull, the Visit Florida chief said, might be considered a “trade secret.”

Only three weeks ago, Mr. Scott stood proudly by Mr. Seccombe at a press conference in Jacksonville as he announced that 85 million people had visited Florida during the first three quarters of the year, a record. About the uproar over the secret contract at that news conference? Nary a word of dissent from the state’s chief executive.

What’s even worse is that Gov. Scott and lawmakers earlier this year enacted legislation to expand the definition of trade secrets and keep business deals with entertainers from public view. If the Pitbull secret contract were signed today, Visit Florida could argue that state law required it keep the contract details secret, says Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. She had urged the governor to veto the bill, to no avail. All but seven Democrats voted for the two bills that went into effect on Oct. 1.

We don’t blame “Mr. 305” for trying to keep this deal a secret. But the state should never have agreed, and it’s laughable to have Gov. Scott belatedly weighing in as a champion of transparency. This is a governor who has been loath to disclose information to the public except when he’s forced to, and had to settle a lawsuit for $700,000 after wrongly asserting that he didn’t use private email accounts.

That was after refusing to confirm the existence of his transition team emails. And after he became governor, he fired the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in violation of the Sunshine Law.

On Friday, in what looks like a last-ditch effort to save Visit Florida from the legislative ax, Mr. Scott said he wants to seek a series of actions to make the agency more transparent. Too little, too late, governor.

Speaker Corcoran is right to seek greater transparency in state government. And lawmakers shouldn’t be fooled by the governor’s latest actions. If he wants to strike a credible pose as a transparency advocate, he should lead a fight to overturn the Senate bills that expand secrecy in state contracts — and make this a priority when the Legislature convenes next year.