By Ashley Harrell
Center for Public Integrity
When people who are not from Florida think about Florida, they think Disney World. They think sunburnt half-wits who can’t understand a ballot. They think weird news, like a guy getting arrested for trying to trade a live alligator for beer. They don’t often think hard about why so much weird news comes out of the nation’s southeastern tip, but here’s one interesting reason: Since 1909, Florida has had strict laws that declare nearly all government documents — including police reports — public records.
About This Story
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven analysis of each state’s laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and transparency, first carried out in 2011-2012 and completely updated with new research and reporting in 2015.
The Florida Sunshine Law, as open records and meetings regulations have come to be known, has long been a source of chest-thumping in Tallahassee. “Florida is proud to lead the nation in providing public access to government meetings and records,” brags the Office of the Attorney General on its website.
But for some, the law seems not to apply.
Over the past several years, the rich and powerful in Florida have seemed far less accountable to open government laws than the drug-addled and hapless. So while the public is welcome to read about how a spring breaker bit off a hamster’s head, nobody was supposed to learn about how Gov. Rick Scott ousted a top law enforcement official behind closed doors, potentially violating the state’s open meetings law.
When somebody got stabbed during confusion involving harmonicas, it was everyone’s business. Meanwhile, public figures are free to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in blind trusts and dodge public scrutiny over conflicts of interest.
This is not to say there aren’t glimmers of hope.
In 2013, a meaningful ethics reform package was enacted for the first time in 36 years. Although its provisions were a bit of a mixed bag, headway was arguably made in restructuring campaign finance, empowering the ethics commission and regulating lobbyists. Those changes slightly boosted some of Florida’s scores in this year’s State Integrity Investigation, but they weren’t enough to make a real impact.
Florida earned a score of 61 (D-), tying it for 30th among 50 in the ranking and assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. That’s a drop from 2012, the first time the investigation was conducted, when the state earned a C-. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Absence of information
One would think that in Florida, a reporter could wave around the Sunshine Laws and documents would fall from the sky like so many beams of light. One would be wrong.
The problem is not with the laws that make documents public, but the laws that deal with non-compliance. The statutes create a program through the attorney general’s office that offers mediation at no cost. But should the parties not be satisfied with the program’s non-binding decisions, a criminal complaint can be filed with the state attorney, which may or may not be investigated. After that, a civil suit is the final option.
In those cases, complainants must hire a lawyer and the process can drag on for months. The loser must pick up the fees and court costs. “It’s expensive, so we don’t do it very often,” said Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald and co-bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau.
Having gone through several recent and high-profile legal battles over obtaining documents from both the governor’s office and the Florida Department of Children & Families, Klas had this to say about the process: “It is not reasonable.”
Because they face few consequences when they withhold documents, it’s no wonder that state agencies — and the businesses that act on their behalf — seem inclined to do so.
Public records champion Joel Chandler has made hundreds of requests for public contractor documents, and in 2014, 56 percent of those requests were rebuffed, he said. This is despite a law passed in 2013 requiring public agencies to include new provisions in service contracts confirming the contractors’ obligations under the Public Records Act.
In some cases, Chandler said, his requests have been thrown on the ground by those he’s sought records from. He’s been accused of trespassing and threatened with violence. The only hope for a penalty for this lies in businesses’ contracts, which allow the state to terminate them. As far as Chandler knows, that’s never happened. “No contract will be canceled, no matter how egregiously a company violates the Public Records Act,” he said.
Ethics reform: A for effort?
Florida’s 2013 package of reform bills — in effect a response to the initial State Integrity Investigation — did not make giant strides. In most cases, the scores in the areas that the package addressed actually dropped. But some new measures involving campaign finance, lobbying and most notably ethics reform have proven to be steps in the right direction.
A new campaign finance measure eliminated committees of continuous existence, stopping these fundraising groups from spending unlimited and untraceable money on political candidates. These committees were immediately replaced, however, with political action committees that are easier to track but also have no spending caps.
The law also raised contribution limits for individuals to $3,000, and they are still able to give as much as they want to political action committees. “If you know how to put your money in the right box, it’s unlimited,” said Florida attorney and election law expert Mark Herron.
Lobbying regulation in Florida also remains weak, but the last few years have seen some improvements. The reform package established a two-year cooling off period during which former legislators are now forbidden from lobbying any state agency. In addition, a law passed in 2014 closed a loophole that previously allowed water management districts in Florida to claim that their lobbyists did not have to register. Most recently, 2015 became the first year Florida audited a random sample of its lobbyists’ compensation reports, which were due in June, but were not yet released at the time of publication.
Finally, the reform package permitted the formerly toothless Commission on Ethics to garnish wages of elected officials who owe fines, and to pursue investigations after receiving referrals from law enforcement or the governor’s office. Additionally, it required that high-ranking government officials’ financial disclosure forms be posted in a searchable database online.
Now, if Florida could just start independently auditing those forms, it would be a true day in the sun.