Newspapers File Lawsuit Against Florida Governor for Violating State's Open Meeting Law
By Tia Mitchell
The abrupt resignation of the chief of Florida's crime-fighting agency prompted media and open government advocates to file a lawsuit accusing Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet of violating state Sunshine Laws.
The Florida Society of News Editors, the Associated Press, Citizens for Sunshine and a St. Petersburg lawyer teamed up Wednesday to ask a Leon County court to rule that Scott's ouster of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey subverted open meeting laws.
"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 minutes being taken," the lawsuit said.
"The Times-Union has joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs, along with the Associated Press and the Florida Society of News Editors and open-government advocates," said Frank Denton, the newspaper's editor and president of FSNE.
The lawsuit argues that aides for Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam acted with delegated authority to communicate on their bosses' behalf knowing the matter would come up for a vote at a public Cabinet meeting. The plaintiffs asked the court not only to declare Sunshine Laws were broken but to prohibit the future practice of using Cabinet aides to act as conduits to the governor's office.
One plaintiff, attorney Matthew Weidner, sent a complaint letter to Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs last week asking him to investigate whether Scott and the Cabinet broke open meeting laws. Meggs declined to act, citing a lack of hard evidence.
The First Amendment Foundation of Florida took the separate action Wednesday of supporting previous statements by Bondi that transparency issues surrounding Bailey's resignation deserved greater attention.
"You have called for an outside investigation and expressed your own concern that this state's Sunshine Laws might have been violated in the handling of the FDLE issues," foundation president Barbara Petersen wrote Wednesday. "The Foundation supports the appointment of an independent state attorney from outside Leon County to investigate this matter, to consider whether criminal charges should be brought and to issue a written report with findings."
Various statements from Scott and the Cabinet members since Bailey's ouster have only created additional uncertainty about what happened behind the scenes, Petersen wrote.
"While the officers have stated they were blind-sided by Mr. Bailey's ouster, the Governor, in one of his few media interviews on the issue, seemed to concede that the law was violated," she said.
None of this might have ever come to light if Bailey had not complained to the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau after his replacement was approved at the Jan. 13 Cabinet meeting. He told the papers that the governor misled Cabinet members into believing he resigned voluntarily, and he later outlined why his relationship with the governor's staff had diminished, especially while Scott was campaigning for a second term.
All three Cabinet members have said they now believe Bailey was treated unfairly and want to establish better procedures for the future when the governor wants to replace agency heads who also have Cabinet oversight. Scott has already said he wants to replace at least three more people: Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear and Department of Revenue executive director Marshall Stranburg.
Scott and the Cabinet are in Tampa on Thursday for a regularly scheduled meeting where picking up the pieces of the Bailey fallout is at the top of their agenda.
They will start the morning with ceremonial duties at the Florida State Fair, including flipping a switch to turn on the lights of the midway and sampling produce and other "Fresh from Florida." The business meeting begins at 9 a.m. where they will begin discussing a new process for how they will evaluate agency heads and fill vacancies when they arise.
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