By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
News organizations have teamed up with lawyers and open records advocates to file a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet over the firing of the former chief of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Groups are suing in a circuit court in Tallahassee because they believe state officials broke the state’s open meetings laws leading up to the ousting of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
This action seeks a declaration that the Florida Cabinet is subject to the Sunshine Law when cabinet aides seek to act for and exchange information among Cabinet members as to decisions about hiring and firing the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The Governor violated the Sunshine Law by using conduits to engage in polling, discussions, communications and other exchanges with other members of the Cabinet regarding his unilateral decision to force the resignation of the FDLE Commissioner and appoint a replacement without any notice to the public, without any opportunity for the public to attend, and without any Filing # 23326580 E-Filed 02/03/2015 05:01:59 PM 2 minutes being taken. Because the Governor appears to justify this conduct by claiming it is part of a longstanding convention and tradition, Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner—who previously and unsuccessfully requested for a state attorney to investigate the firing—as well as the Associated Press, The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and Citizens for Sunshine, Inc.
The lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, alleges that the Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam circumvented the requirements of the open meeting laws because they used conduits to coordinate and discuss the removal of Bailey and the selection of his replacement, Rick Swearingen, without advanced notice or in a public setting.
The groups cite statements from the governor and Cabinet officials who acknowledged they allowed their Cabinet aides, and in the governor’s case his general counsel, to both confer about the decision to replace Bailey and agree to the hiring of Swearingen in violation of their constitutional duties.
The lawsuit comes a day before the Cabinet is to meet and discuss, this time in an open setting, the procedures for hiring and firing officials who report to them as a joint body. That meeting will be held at the grounds of the Florida State Fair during the fair. The governor rejected a request by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to shift the venue for the meeting back to Tallahassee because of the seriousness of the debate. Scott refused.
Plaintiffs are asking for an injunction against any future meetings that are required to be open by law that are not conducted publicly.
Part of the problem is that currently state law doesn’t have strict rules or adequate penalties in place for Sunshine violations. According to the plaintiffs in this case, they “have no adequate remedy other than an injunction to prohibit the longstanding practice of violating the Sunshine Law by allowing Cabinet aides to engage in polling, discussions and communications about appointments required to be made by the Cabinet and relaying the results of those exchanges back to Cabinet members prior to a Cabinet meeting,” the lawsuit reads.