By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
From the beginning, Gov. Rick Scott has seemed about as comfortable with public records as Rick Perry might at a Brokeback Mountain screening.
Right after taking office, Scott advised his staff to limit use of e-mails because they are public records. To this day, the governor’s website has the following warning at the bottom: “Under Florida law, e-mail addresses are public records. If you do not want your e-mail address released in response to a public records request, do not send electronic mail to this entity. Instead, contact this office by phone or in writing.”
Then Scott increased the price of records requests as if they were premium unleaded gasoline. It prompted veteran political editor and reporter Brian Crowley to inform his readers that it cost more to get 1,100 e-mails from Scott communications director Brian Burgess ($784.84) than it did to get 24,000 pages of Sarah Palin’s e-mails ($725.97) from the state of Alaska.
Well, it turns out that Crowley might have gotten a good deal. Some of Scott’s records can’t be had at any price.
As Michael Bender reported Aug. 18 in the St. Petersburg Times, Scott’s transition team deleted entire e-mail accounts shortly after he took office. Destruction of public records is a violation of state law.
Chris Kise was the lawyer and public records adviser for the transition, the man who was supposedly responsible for the gaffe. Bender wrote: “Kise describes it as an oversight, the result, he said, of a chaotic transition run by a largely out-of-state staff still learning Florida law and unfamiliar with the technology that ran the e-mail system.”
That explanation might be more digestible if Kise hadn’t worked in the Attorney General’s office under Charlie Crist and served on Crist’s transition as governor. Kise, the article points out, was recently appointed by Scott to the board of Enterprise Florida, the economic development group that hands out tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives.
The governor’s office has tried to find some of the deleted e-mails in staffers’ personal e-mail accounts. They’ve turned over 69 e-mails that Scott sent and 78 that he received.
“We’ve captured most everything,” Kise said, although the numbers would seem to raise questions about that assertion. Kise said 40 to 50 e-mail accounts were deleted. That would come out to only about one-and-a-half e-mails sent per account for the two-month transition period.
The Times story prompted Scott to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which answers to Scott and his cabinet, to investigate the matter. On Monday, the FDLE opened the investigation — to the chagrin of Scott’s vanquished opponent in the gubernatorial race, Alex Sink. Sink believes there’s a conflict of interest in the FDLE investigating Scott’s office.
Scott’s public records reluctance has prompted complaints from groups such as the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida First Amendment Foundation. And Scott has responded by meeting more often with newspaper editorial boards and creating a website that supposedly addresses public records issues.
But the site, FloridaHasARightToKnow.com, is difficult to navigate and critics say it comes across as self-promoting and offers only records that push Scott’s agenda. For example, one of the site’s five quick links is to “Search State Pensions.” It sends the visitor to a listing of all people receiving more than $100,000 a year in pension benefits. Attacking pension benefits for state workers has been one of Scott’s cornerstone issues.
“It’s a good start, but it gives us the information they want us to see,” said Florida First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen, who is a former board member for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. “The only way to truly hold our government accountable is if they embrace the spirit and the letter of the public records laws.”