WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scott admin's missing emails cloud Florida's sunshine laws

By Tom Flanigan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-983731.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Every day, people delete BILLIONs of e-mail messages. Usually, this is no big deal. But Tom Flanigan reports, when e-mails that are supposed to be public record go missing, it's a serious matter that can have far-reaching implications.

The State of Florida passed one of the nation's first, and strictest, "Government in the Sunshine" law back in 1967. But the Sunshine State already had a long tradition of openness when it came to public records. Way, way back in 1909, the state legislature passed a sweeping law regarding public records. It provided then, and still does today, that any records made or received by any public agency in the course of its official business be available for inspection, unless specifically exempted by the Legislature. Why is this important? Barbara Peterson with the First Amendment Foundation has an answer.

"The whole purpose of the public records law is to allow us, the people, to oversee our government and to hold our government accountable."

Back in the day, public records were totally paper-based. But in recent years, electronic communication has superseded hard copy in many cases. That means government e-mails fall under Florida's public records law. As such, they must be preserved and made available for public inspection, including inspection by the media. In the days between last November's election and the inauguration of Governor Rick Scott in January, his transition team generated thousands of e-mails. The First Amendment Foundation's Peterson says these are critical communications.

"The person who's been elected to office, in this case the highest office in the state - let's remember that - they're determining the path that the state is going to take over the next four years, if not eight years. So who they're hiring, why they're hiring this person over that person, is critically important."

Those e-mails also include detailed discussions of policy issues and what legislative priorities the administration will adopt. That's why Peterson says she was appalled when the governor's staff confirmed reports first published in the St.Pete Times and Miami Herald that most of the transition team e-mails between the election and the inauguration have gone missing.

"It's not a whoopsie'. Sorry. I just violated the constitution. Oopsie!'"

Governor Scott says not all of the e-mails made during that time have vanished.

"Like my e-mails, I assume, are all there. It's just that it was the service that they used at the time didn't keep them."

Actually, there were two services involved in the Scott transition team e-mail system. The first was the Tallahassee office of Harris Media, which handled many aspects of the Scott campaign's digital communications and also worked on the digital side of Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign. Harris, in turn, contracted with Rackspace Hosting to provide the dedicated e-mail servers. The governor's people insist they had no knowledge that e-mail system was being shut down and its contents might be lost. But Barbara Peterson says they may have forgotten an e-mail they did get from Amy Brown, who manages Harris Media's Tallahassee office.

"To people on the transition team - everybody on the transition team, actually; that would have included the governor - saying All e-mail boxes are shutting down on Monday, January 31st. You will no longer have access to your e-mail inbox, contacts and messages at that time. Please take the time the rest of this week and weekend to copy any of the data you will need from those accounts."

So, was this not done and everything went away with the Monday shutdown of the e-mail server? What really happened? Governor Scott says he's turned the matter over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He says there are two questions he'd like answered.

"One, is there a way to retrieve them from the group that did it and and then why did it happen?"

No one denies that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has the investigative chops to handle the matter. But the department's Director Jerry Bailey also serves at the pleasure of the governor. Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink says that's a problem.

"What are you going to do? Put a guy in a position of turning around and saying, Hey, boss, you broke the law?' That's just inappropriate so this just begs for some independent investigative body to look into this situation in which apparently Florida's public records laws have been broken."

Sink thinks the governor should turn the matter over to one of Florida's state attorneys or the F-B-I. Of course, Sink was the Democratic candidate for governor who lost to Scott in the November election. So is all this a purely partisan food fight? The First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Peterson doesn't think so.

"I don't care which political party anybody's from. If they violate the law, they violate the law and they need to be taken to task."