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Records show governor’s office put up barriers to public records

Text messagesGov. Rick Scott launched Project Sunburst two years ago to give the public easy access to his emails and those of his staff and promised it would become a “unprecedented, transparent window into how state government works.”

He also created a web site to show state employee salaries and held more press conferences flaunting his open government record than any governor in recent history.

But, in practice, the Scott administration has erected barriers to public records, marginalized the use of Sunburst, 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.

“They don’t turn over anything unless they get caught,’’ said Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer whose two-year legal battle over a property dispute with the state produced thousands of documents raising questions about many of the administration’s practices.

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. 

“We follow the law,” Scott said told reporters. “This is just an individual that sues the state, tries to cause problems.”

The governor’s office “code of conduct” states that employees should not use personal email accounts “unless such use is necessary upon a reasonable evaluation of the circumstances at hand” and then must forward the public record to his or her state account “or otherwise retain them in accordance with the Department of State retention policy.”

Scott spokesman John Tupps said the governor’s office “now discourages the use of text messaging by employees because text messages are hard to catalog due to the digital nature of the message.”

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 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. Story here. 

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