“[Attorney] Steve Andrews has a personal grudge against state government and no shortage of time to file lawsuits as a trial lawyer representing himself. We are confident the courts will ultimately throw out his baseless arguments and personal attacks.”
– Gov. Rick Scott spokesman Frank Collins
JUST THE STATS
Amount Orange County commissioners and the mayor were fined by State Attorney Jeff Ashton for flouting Florida’s broad public records laws after the textgate scandal of 2012
Value of the contract Gov. Rick Scott’s office has with Attorney Thomas Bishop in order to fight a public records lawsuit filed by Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews against Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi
Number of non-governmental email accounts currently under investigation after Tallahassee Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis ruled against Scott’s administration: one from Google, one from Yahoo!
The art of delete
Have you ever had that Snapchat feeling that all the people around you are electronically whispering about something right in front of you – something probably rather juicy and expensive and dumb – but then they all immediately and covertly erase whatever it is they were texting about and breeze by you like you shouldn’t even know what’s going on? Oh, of course you have. That’s sort of the same feeling you had when the Orange County Board of County Commissioners was smearing its iPads with bad syntax and lobbyist love in 2012 in order to deliver the “kill shot” to democracy on the earned sick-time issue. Sometimes “Government in the Sunshine” can be interpreted to be a total eclipse of public records – at least when you’re an elected figure or the special lapdog to one.
Amid all of the talk of ethics reform in the Legislature and even Gov. Scott’s ridiculously named “Project Sunburst,” which pretends to give you access to every email communiqué circulating in the governor’s upper crust, there have been a series of questionable acts that seem to be making the argument that your state government is less than honest. Even barring the almost monotone delivery of non-answers by the governor to any question dropped in front of him, the strange scheduling gaps on his press emails, the odd trips to hunting camps, the pretty obvious pay-to-play maneuvering that will land you a job within his head’s gravitational orbit, the campaign dog issue – they all make this whole enterprise seem a little sleazy.
And that’s where the media comes in. And, oh, how Scott loves the media. When Associated Press scribe (and former Tallahassee acquaintance of this guy) Gary Fineout discovered that, hey, this “Sunburst” has some clouds, because there are emails discussing public business at email@example.com that somehow were accidentally forwarded to the governor’s public account in 2013 – emails discussing public appointments, no less – the electronic onion started to peel. Attorney Steven Andrews picked up on the stench and realized that it was likely not just one private account being used to help the governor’s office avoid public scrutiny, but several email addresses and (naturally) private texting devices that were actually running the state, he sued. With good reason, apparently.
As the Miami Herald reported last week, “[Andrews] claims that email chains indicate that the governor’s office used staff members, whose emails were not published on the Sunburst system, as surrogates to keep the messages between the governor and others out of the public record.” In other words, never trust somebody who is screaming “transparency!” in your face too loudly. (Just ask everyone involved in the still-unfolding Fair Districts debacle.)
But there are two sides to every lawsuit, so we should all just wait and let this unfold, right? When the governor’s lackeys start accusing plaintiffs of being “trial lawyers” with too much time on their hands, then you know they’re not speaking in code, right? Oh, and also, Scott’s legal team is using that whole “who knows what’s public and private?” Abbott and Costello routine in its defense, so you know there’s absolutely nothing to hide.
Except maybe there is. Because why else would Scott tell reporters “Absolutely not; we follow the law” when quizzed about the issue after staffers admitted – or were implicated with evidence – that they were conducting business via private accounts designed to circumvent public records laws? Stop us if you think that you’ve heard this one before (and stop us even harder if you think you’re not about to hear a bit more about this kind of electronic civic cloudiness in the nearest of futures, wink).
On Aug. 13, Fineout and the Associated Press reported that Circuit Judge Charles Francis sided, at least partially, with Andrews and ordered both Google and Yahoo! to reveal the creators of this latest subversive scheme so that said creators could be put under oath (apparently the actual content of most of the emails, at least according to the governor’s office) and squeal – meaning the records have likely been destroyed. Which, you’ll recall, is illegal. But what’s the law when you’re the governor and the attorney general of a state that touts its Sunshine? A perfect storm.