On the brink of this year's legislative session, Governor Rick Scott is dealing with a big thorn. Scott replaced former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Gerald Bailey, saying Bailey left voluntarily.
Bailey says that's a lie.
When Governor Scott's lawyer told Bailey to retire, Bailey did pack up his stuff and leave. A few days later, Scott said Bailey resigned. Bailey said that wasn't true and called the governor a liar in the public square. Things rapidly went down from there.
Now a group of media companies is suing the governor, claiming he violated the state's open-meetings laws. The agencies involved in the suit include: the Associated Press, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and Citizens for Sunshine, Inc. They claim that cabinet aides acted for and exchanged information among other cabinet members as to decisions about the firing of Bailey.
What could this lawsuit mean for Gov. Scott in his second term? Steve Bousquet is the Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the Tampa Bay Times. He shared a few thoughts on the suit and its ramifications.
A group that may very well have a clear answer as to what happened is the cabinet aides. Who are these people and how many are there?
There about a dozen of them. The governor and each of the cabinet members have at least two cabinet aides. They are experienced staff people. They tend to be young. They are the people who walk through the nuts and bolts of the issues that comes before the cabinet. The cabinet meets generally once or twice a month. The issues are fairly mundane. They're fairly low-profile staff people.
The governor stated there are few or no tapes of conversations with aides. Why not? What does the law say about that?
The cabinet aides have public meetings about a week before the governor and cabinet meet in public. In effect, they go through a dry run of the same issues that the cabinet and governor are going to vote on the next week. The cabinet aides meeting in public apparently do not constitute a board under state law. So there are no minutes kept of their deliberations. When the two cabinet members (Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam) learned of this they were apoplectic about it, they couldn't believe it. They're now calling on Rick Scott to create a system to have minutes kept on these meetings so that they know what their aides are talking about. Cabinet aides meetings are run by the governor's office, so this ball is in Rick Scott's lap.
If there are no recordings, what will we expect from the lawsuit?
The lawsuit involves private conversations that the governor's cabinet aides and the cabinet member's aides had back in November or early December. What's going to get potentially ugly is that the lawyer who is representing these media organizations is going to issue subpoenas to all of these cabinet aides, and they're going to have to walk into the courthouse and raise their right hand and testify under oath what happened. And if there is any evidence of a Sunshine Law violation it's going to come from those depositions.
How could this affect the governor's second term?
It's a major distraction. It's out of the headlines for the time being. I think it's damaged his credibility with the public. You had this development where 10,000 people have signed a petition through a liberal group called Progress Florida, which wants an investigation. It has exposed something that has always been a sort of a weakness of the governor. He seems to have a lack of an understanding of how government works at a higher level. This is not a CEO of a private company who can make a staff change whenever he feels like it. There are other people that the head of the FDLE reports to, and they should have had a say in this whole situation.
Plaintiffs, MATTHEW WEIDNER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, CITIZENS FOR SUNSHINE, INC., and THE FLORIDA SOCIETY OF NEWSPAPER EDITORS, INC., sue Defendants, RICK SCOTT and THE FLORIDA CABINET, a joint collegial body, and alleges:
Florida's Sunshine Law
To assist the public and governmental agencies in understanding the requirements and exemptions to Florida's open government laws, the Attorney General's Office compiles a comprehensive guide known as the Government-in-the-Sunshine manual. The manual is published each year at no taxpayer expense by the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.