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Some Call Governor's Transparency Efforts Cloudy

When it comes to transparency, Florida Governor Rick Scott hasn’t always been crystal clear. So says President of the First Amendment Foundation, Barbara Petersen. She says some of that stems from the governor’s long history working in the private sector.

“We had a few bumps along the way there early in the administration if you remember," Petersen says. "We had problems getting access to the transition team e-mails and it turns out they had been deleted. The governor did a good job of trying to go back to get those e-mails – the ones he could."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the issue and found no wrong doing and Petersen says Scott asked the legislature to help protect against future mistakes by clarifying officers elect are subject to open government laws once the election results have been certified.

And about a year into his term, the governor announced a plan to make his e-mails and the e-mails from his executive staff available the public through an online porthole called “Project Sunburst.”

“As you know since my first day in office, I have committed to making sure the citizens of our state have the information they need in order to hold their state government accountable,” Scott said during the project's unveiling.

Scott says the idea was to increase transparency by giving citizens unfettered access to the items most frequently sought through public records requests. But Petersen say after a while, Project Sunburst’s clear window started to look more like a smoke screen.

"I think there is some slight of hand going on there. For example, with project Sunburst. I think the Tampa Bay Times reported the that the governor is actually using different e-mail addresses and only the good supportive e-mails are going up on Project Sunburst. That's paying lip service," Petersen says.

And Scott is now facing a lawsuit from Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews who says Scott and his staff have been using personal e-mail accounts to conduct state business. Andrews is involved in a dispute with the state involving the property where Andrew’s office is, which adjoins to the governor’s mansion.

“Over the time period it became, we believe, apparent to us that there were public records not being produced to us pursuant to our public records requests, which were text messages on state and personal cell phones, which involved state business and number two, e-mails from private e-mail accounts that involve state business,” Andrews says.

And Andrews’ lawsuit isn’t the only one Scott is facing. Democratic candidate for Attorney General George Sheldon is asking a judge to declare the governor’s blind trust unlawful and to force Scott to disclose all of his assets. Sheldon’s move follows a Miami Herald Report finding significant differences between the state financial forms Scott filed as an elected office holder and the tax information he submitted to the federal government. The report also raises questions about who is running Scott’s bind trust and how blind the trust really is. 

"The question before the courts right now is does that blind trust equal full and public financial disclosure as declared by the Sunshine Amendment in the Florida Constitution. I don't think it does," Petersen says. "The intent and the purpose of a blind trust is to avoid conflicts of interest."

But, during a recent debate with his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, Scott maintained that’s why he uses a blind trust.

“The reason is so that I don’t have a conflict," Scott says.  "Charlie Crist did a grand jury when he was governor and said that the right thing to do is do what Jeb Bush did and Alex Sink did – now Charlie didn’t do it – put your assets in a blind trust so you don’t have a conflict. So, I don’t know what assets I have. A third party runs those assets and that’s what I’ve done.”

Scott’s campaign staff released a statement saying the governor is in “full compliance with both federal and state reporting requirements, which are different.”


Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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