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Judge rules that DOC 'gag order' followed the law, dismisses lawsuit

Hankinson hearingIn another blow to the inspectors at the Department of Corrections who have attempted to call attention to abuse and cover-ups in the prison system, a Tallahassee judge ruled Tuesday that the agency did not violate the law when it ordered employees to sign a new confidentiality agreement. 

Judge James C. Hankinson dismissed a lawsuit brought by Inspectors Aubrey Land, John Ulm, Stacy Harris, David Clark and Doug Glisson, who believed that the so-called gag order was intended to have a chilling effect on their ability to speak out about corruption at the troubled agency. Each of them have sought and been denied whistleblower protection by the state's Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel and last week a federal judge dismissed a whistleblower lawsuit by some of them. 

At issue was a confidentiality agreement ordered by DOC Secretary Julie Jones in February, just days after a legislative committee started an aggressive questioning of her inspector general. Jones said later that the timing was coincidental and told a House committee that the document was needed because when she arrived at the agency she was told "we have no policy and we have no confidentiality agreement.”

However, Jay Vail, the agency’s attorney entered as evidence two confidentiality agreements he said were routinely used by DOC and signed by the inspectors who brought the lawsuit. He called as a witness DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley who testified that the department did require staff to sign the confidentiality agreements to prevent confidential information from becoming public but it was limited to those who had access to the case database system and not to the entire department.

Steven R. Andrews, lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that rather than impose the same agreement on additional employees, Jones broadened it to include new language that defined confidential information as "not limited to confidential information as defined by law."

He said that opened the possibility that employees could be punished for releasing or discussing information that otherwise was a public record but deemed confidential because it was in a DOC file. He argued that the language allowed DOC to alter the definition of public record, something that only the Legislature can do. 

"This does not follow the law,'' Andrews said. "They can be terminated for lawful activity."

Beasley denied that the intent of the new agreement was to change the law and argued that anything that currently may be released as a public record will continue to be released as a public record. He told the court that Jones asked him to issue the new confidentiality agreement to capture a broader swath of employees in his department.

That response satisfied Hankinson who concluded that it was a “plausible interpretation” of the confidentiality agreemen and did not appear to violate the constitutional protections of the public records law, as the plaintiffs alleged.

“Clearly, the Department of Corrections cannot redefine the public records law,’’ Hankinson said after ruling against them. “I do not find that they have attempted to redefine the public records law. They can, and properly have, controlled the method in which public records are disseminated.” 

Photo: Hearing in Judge Hankinson's chambers. From left to right: DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, DOC attorney Jay Vail, Judge Jame. C. Hankinson, plaintiff's attorney Steven R. Andrews, Andrews' partner, Brian Finnerty, Inspector John Ulm.