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Florida's public records tradition in 2014 became the year of 'oops'

It was a dark year for sunshine in Florida in 2014.

Legal fights by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida kept crucial documents under wraps long enough to dilute their impact once they were released. The governor took the state’s public records tradition a new direction as he used taxpayer money to defend his attempts to shift the burden for holding the public records from the state to individual employees, and his lawyers opened a new legal vein with his interpretation of the blind trust law.

A lawsuit over the state’s congressional redistricting was fought without the aid of emails that showed GOP political consultants conspired to manipulate the process with false witnesses and gerrymandered maps. A legislatively commissioned report to make the state’s budgeting process more transparent was ignored by legislators.

Scott continued to be the first governor in modern history to shield all record of his travel from public view, and his office defended efforts to erase events from calendars before turning them over as public records.

The Department of Children & Families, under orders from the Legislature following a Herald serieson the state’s failure to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents, unveiled a website listing all child deaths. At the same time, Scott’s Department of Health stopped posting critical child death data on its website and excluded from its annual report on child deaths detailed analysis of the causes of death and the state’s role leading up to the fatalities.

And although the Department of Corrections introduced a “transparency database” listing prison deaths after a spate of critical news reports, it continued to embrace a policy that makes it difficult to fully examine the circumstances of in-custody deaths.

“What you’re seeing is a CEO mentality in which everything is viewed as a trade secret,’’ said Paula Dockery, a former Republican senator from Lakeland and former Scott supporter. “While that has served Rick Scott well, it has not served the people of Florida well and is not abiding by the spirit of the open government laws.” Story here. 

Here's a timeline of only some of the issues:

▪ March: Governor’s staff stops populating the Sunburst website, which is supposed to post all email correspondence of the governor and his staff, as many in his communications department leave to work for his re-election campaign.

▪ April: Legislators pass and Gov. Rick Scott signs 22 bills carving out a record number of new exemptions to the public records law. Among them, a bill to create a virtual blanket of secrecy surrounding family trust companies.

▪ May: Legislature adjourns without approving any recommendations of the legislatively commissioned User Experience Task Force to make the state’s budget process, and related web sites, more transparent.

▪ May: Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, files a lawsuit urging the Florida Supreme Court to prohibit using blind trusts in place of full financial disclosure. The court said it must first be decided in district court and in July Circuit Judge John Cooper upheld the law. Apthorp then asked the appellate court to transfer it to the Florida Supreme Court..

▪ May: A Tallahassee trial court allows a courtroom to be closed to allow GOP political consultants to testify about redistricting documents they claim are “trade secrets.” The Florida Supreme Court ultimately rejects that argument in late November, long after the trial has concluded.

▪ June: Emails obtained by lawyer Steve Andrews show that lobbyists and well-positioned Republicans routinely communicate about public business with the governor’s staff using text messages via private cell phones.

▪ June: Scott releases his 2013 financial disclosure forms but relies on interpretation of the blind trust law to shield assets held by both him and his wife.

▪ June: The governor argues in court documents that public records held on private email accounts and private cell phones of former state workers are the responsibility of the employees, not the state, creating a new barrier to access.

▪ August: Scott acknowledges for the first time that he uses a private email account but says he uses it “primarily to communicate with my family” and denies he uses it for public business. “We follow the law,’’ he said.

▪ August: Scott spokesman John Tupps announces a change in policyregarding text messages, saying in a statement that 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.”

▪ September: Scott’s office argues in court documents that his calendars and those of his staff are “transitory” documents that can be changed and altered. The office has completed several public records request for calendars that include only blank documents.

▪ November: Florida Supreme Court orders the release of hundreds of pages of emails and documents deemed “trade secrets” by GOP political consultants in the redistricting case. The emails show how the Republican consultants conspired to manipulate the process with false witnesses and gerrymandered maps.

▪ November: Scott releases hundreds of pages of emails from his private g-mail account relating to state business after what his staff calls a “thorough review.” He offers no explanation as to why he previously claimed the documents did not exist.

▪ December: Child Abuse Death Review Committee produces an annual report but excludes what it once included: detailed analysis of the causes of death and the Department of Children & Families’ role leading up to the fatalities, or if the deaths were preventable. The reports are no longer archived online.