Gov. Scott’s administration flunks Sunshine test on transparency

Bradenton Herald

Gov. Rick Scott’s deplorable track record on following open-government mandates in state law fell to a new low with his December firing of a Cabinet-level state agency director.

The governor and his staff engineered the sacking behind closed doors — absent a public discussion or a public vote — in clear violation of the state open meetings and public records laws.

Scott also sidestepped the law that requires Cabinet members be consulted on dismissals since they share oversight of the chiefs of 10 state agencies. None were in the ouster of Gerald Bailey, then the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Just last week, the governor and the Cabinet — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — agreed to attend a two-hour refresher course on Florida’s vaunted Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Coincidentally, this Cabinet pledge came just days before today’s beginning of Sunshine Week, which began in Florida in 2002. Inspired by Florida’s ground-breaking program, the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press launched a national endeavor to expand open-government awareness in 2005.

The entire Florida Cabinet, which includes Scott, now faces a lawsuit alleging they violated the Sunshine Law in ousting Bailey. The suit was filed by First Amendment organizations and media outlets that include the Bradenton Herald and the Miami Herald.

The former chief executive officer of the country’s largest hospital chain, Scott brought corporate-world secrecy into his administration and state government.

Time and time again, the governor has exhibited willful disregard for the Sunshine law while claiming compliance. He is most in need of an open-government refresher course, but whether that brings change is questionable given his history of disdain for transparency.

Examples abound:

The DCF debacle

• Last year, the Herald published a detailed series of reports on the failings of the Department of Children & Families child protection unit in the deaths of hundreds of children — based on public records. Now the agency’s reviews of each child’s death are quite meager and less critical, leaving the public and media in the dark about DCF’s performance.

• Plus, the Florida Department of Health failed to live up to previous standards in December on annual reports from the Child Abuse Death Review Committee. Those documents did not include detailed assessment into the causes of the fatalities and DCF’s participation in the cases prior to the deaths.

Should the public or media wish to review those reports in the future, they won’t be found archived online. DOH quit following that practice for reasons that cannot possibly be justified.

DOH apparently doesn’t want poor performance and unmitigated failure exposed, as Sunshine law demands. That’s shameful, and the Legislature must ensure the agency return to best practices.

Scott’s shadow operation

• With much fanfare, the governor launched the so-called Project Sunburst three years ago to provide easy access to his and his staff’s emails. He heralded the website as giving an “unprecedented, transparent window into how state government works.” It didn’t work out that way.

Scott quit updating the site when he launched his re-election campaign and only recently began working on the system.

• Scott’s personal attorney claimed in court documents that the governor never conducted state business on his private email account. But after he secured a second term, his office released hundreds of pages of emails that did indeed cover public business. No explanation has been forthcoming.

• The governor’s calendars are scrubbed of events, with the administration arguing the documents are “transitory” and can be changed and altered. That hides official meeting dates and attendees’s names.

Scott also conceals his travel records, making him the first governor in recent history to do so.

• He shifted the responsibility for storing public records onto employees instead of the state, thus creating a defense in not fulfilling records requests.

The employee is the “custodian” of public records held in private devices, not the state, according to the governor’s policy.

In a court document, his deputy general counsel advanced the unacceptable argument that the governor does not control the private accounts and devices of employees and therefore cannot search them for public records.

The list of Scott’s Sunshine transgression runs much longer, dragging Florida back to the dark ages. His record makes a mockery of his continuing claim to transparency.