Judge Lets Lawsuit Allege Florida Governor Intentionally Violated Law

by | December 10, 2014

By Mary Ellen Klas

A Tallahassee judge opened the door Monday for a new complaint against Gov. Rick Scott that alleges the governor intentionally withheld public records in violation of state law.

Leon Circuit Court Judge Charles Francis ruled Monday at a hearing in his chambers that Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews may amend his existing public records lawsuit against the governor because Scott turned over 197 pages from his private Google mail account after he and his attorneys previously told the court the records did not exist.

"It's a violation of the public records laws to wait 18 months to produce records ... and then two years after we request them, they suddenly produce emails,'' Andrews told the court.

The case will now turn on whether the governor intentionally withheld the documents.

Andrews filed the public records complaint against the governor in November 2013, and for the next year, the governor and his lawyers said in legal documents that they could prove the governor had produced all relevant records. They also claimed that the governor did not use an iPad to conduct public business and used his Gmail account only for private communications.

On Nov. 24, the governor's office turned over documents that showed the governor used his private gov.rls@gmail.com account and his iPad for dozens of email conversations in which he was discussing state business. The emails discussed vetoing legislation, healthcare policy, university tuition, school-testing, luring companies to Florida, choosing a lieutenant governor replacement, and other sensitive issues that he and his staff wanted to keep out of the sunshine.

The documents show that the governor's claims -- that he could prove he turned over all relevant records as part of Andrew's public records request -- were wrong, Andrews said. "We now know they can't prove that.''

Now, Andrews is asking the court to require the governor to turn over all records he has requested as part of an outstanding property dispute he has with the state, and he is asking for attorneys fees. If Andrews proves that the governor intentionally violated the law, state law allows him to recover the cost of the lawsuit.

Scott's spokesman John Tupps said the governor's failure to turn over the documents was an oversight.

"After a thorough review of this old email account, there were occasions the governor failed to forward messages to Sunburst [the online public records website,]" Tupps said in an email. The governor has since closed his Gmail account, and "the personal email the governor uses now has not been given out beyond his family," Tupps said.

Jackie Schutz, another Scott spokewoman, dismissed the significance of Andrew's three-year fight.

"Steve Andrews makes his living by suing the state and launching personal attacks, and we are confident the courts will ultimately ignore his baseless arguments,'' she said in a statement.

Colleen Andrews, Andrews' wife and paralegal, said the firm has not collected any money off the lawsuits against the state.

Francis said Andrews will be allowed to amend his complaint to accuse the governor of intentionally withholding public records, but the judge scolded Andrews for attempting to include in his complaint allegations relating to motives.

Andrews, for example, wants to include details that show the governor's office allegedly altered public records in another case involving the chief of staff to former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, and include an FDLE report about the governor's staff destroying transition emails.

"That's not necessary,'' Francis said, then pointed to the stack of Gmails turned over by the governor. "All I'm going to need when you get to proof is I'm going to need the stack of paper you're going to prove it with."

Scott's attorney Thomas Bishop asked the court to strike from the record attempts by Andrews to include in the legal briefs what he considered "gratuitous, impertinent and scandalous" allegations about the governor's attempts to shield his Gmail account from the public.

"This is an exercise in serial digression,'' he said.

Schutz said taxpayers have spent $54,000 to date defending the governor against the charges.

Andrews said after the hearing that the governor or his lawyers decided to withhold emails from previous public records requests made by Andrews and could be called to testify in the case.

For example, 21 emails from Chris Finkbeiner, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, to the governor at his Gmail account were not turned over with other emails received by Andrews earlier this year. They were released on Nov. 25 along with 197 pages of other documents, after Scott was reelected.

The judge gave Andrews 20 days to file his amended complaint and gave the governor 20 days to respond.

(c)2014 Miami Herald