By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Records obtained by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau show Gov. Rick Scott’s office has been using private email and text messages to discuss state business and then shielded that communication from the state’s broad public records law.
Several days ago Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis ruled Google and Yahoo will have to turn over some information about private email accounts used by Gov. Rick Scott and his staff.
The ruling is part of a lawsuit filed by Tallhassee attorney Steven Andrews, who claims the Scott administration has been skirting the state’s broad public records laws.
Andrews told a judge recently that getting courts involved is the only way to get information about what the governor’s office is up to.
Andrews has been locked in a legal battle with Scott over a land dispute and because of that Scott’s office claims this public records lawsuit is just an extension of that dispute.
Scott’s office says staff there follows the law – as well as an internal “code of conduct” that discourages the use personal email accounts “unless such use is necessary upon a reasonable evaluation of the circumstances at hand” and then forward it to a state account, the Herald/Times reported.
However, the Herald/Times reports that, in practice, the state has “erected barriers to public records …and interpreted the state’s Sunshine laws in a way that open government advocates say has set the clock back on Florida’s open records tradition.”
Andrews spent 18 months getting copies of text messages that he was repeatedly told by the governor’s staff did not exist. He is suing the governor’s office for violating the state’s public records laws, alleging the records he has received are incomplete and, in some cases, altered.
The governor acknowledged for the first time last week that he uses a private email account but issued a blanket denial that he uses it for public business. He also accused Andrews of harassment.
…But thousands of records obtained by Andrews and the Herald/Times indicate that the governor’s staff may have violated that policy when dealing with communication about politically-sensitive information, or when lobbyists and well-positioned Republicans want to communicate with the governor’s top advisers.
For example, when [Department of Environmental Protection] Secretary Herschel Vinyard met the governor and staff from the governor and attorney general’s office at the governor’s mansion on a Sunday in February 2012, he arranged and discussed it with Scott’s then-deputy chief of staff, Carrie O’Rourke via text messages. Records show they were meeting to discuss, among other things, a potential settlement regarding the BP oil spill.
“I’m here w SM (Scott’s chief of staff Steve MacNamara),’’ O’Rourke wrote to Vinyard as the secretary was approaching the mansion. “He wants to brief gov on other issues now.”
Also at the mansion that day was Senate President Don Gaetz, who was instrumental in developing budget language at the time that would steer settlement proceeds to his community.
“I’m going to go outside and get gaetz in a while,” MacNamara wrote in a text message to O’Rourke, who by that time was with Russell Kent of the attorney general’s office, the DEP’s Vinyard, and Mary Thomas and Jesse Panuccio of the governor’s legal office. “I don’t want these folks to see him,’’ MacNamara said.
Emails and text messages show that top members of the governor’s staff also routinely use private email accounts and personal cell phones to conduct public business, even though they are issued email accounts and cell phones from the state.
The Herald/Times article runs through a long list in which members of Scott’s staff used private email or cell phones when conducting or discussing state business.
Also at issue is how Scott’s attorneys interpret Florida’s public records laws, which are relatively broad.
The Herald/Times reports lawyers interpret exemptions in state laws “in the broadest possible terms — often excluding meetings and travel from his official schedule — and shifting the responsibility for producing documents from the Executive Office of the Governor to individual employees.”
Scott’s use of private emails has been an issue since the beginning of his time in office.
Back in 2011, The Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reported that experts claimed Scott’s team had violated public records laws following the transition period right before Scott took office.
Sicne then Scott has launched initiatives like Sunburst– an online database of emails aimed at creating transparency—but, because it was common knowledge that Scott’s administration used private email accounts, experts said Sunburst simply wasn’t enough.