A dispute alleging Gov. Rick Scott and his staff subverted public-records laws will cost the state $700,000, according to an agreement released Friday by the governor’s office.
As first reported by the Herald/Times capital bureau, the state will pay the money to Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews, who until this week had been involved in a legal battle with Scott and the Cabinet about the state’s desire to expand property known as “The Grove” near the governor’s mansion.
The settlement is precedent-setting, the Herald wrote, “in that it is the first time in state history that a sitting governor and attorney general have been sued successfully for violations of Florida’s public records laws. It is also the third legal defeat in recent months for the governor, and the second time he has agreed to use state dollars to end a lawsuit against him. Also signing the agreement is Attorney General Pam Bondi.”
The money will come from four agencies — $445,000 from the Department of Environmental Protection, $120,000 from the governor’s office, $75,000 from the attorney general’s office and $60,000 from the Department of State.
In the course of battling about the property near The Grove, Andrews made public-records requests. Ultimately, a California judge ordered Internet giant Google in April to turn over correspondence through computer IP addresses from the Gmail accounts of Scott and two former staff members. Andrews argued that Scott used Gmail to sidestep the state’s public-records laws.
The agreement to pay Andrews in the public-records dispute was signed Wednesday, the same day that Scott and Cabinet members approved a settlement that ended the Grove property battle.
That battle started in 2012 when Scott and state Cabinet members decided they wanted to buy land that included Andrews’ law office as part of an expansion plan for The Grove, which was the former home of the late Gov. LeRoy Collins and his family. However, Andrews challenged the state plan, as he had entered a contract in 2011 to buy the land for his office.
The state had an option to buy the property under the same terms as Andrews offered, what is known as a “right of first refusal.” But Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that the state sought to impose conditions that were not included in the Andrews contract and had sent a payment that was about $20,000 short of the $580,000 that Andrews agreed to pay.
The state appealed that decision, but the property settlement approved Wednesday ended the appeal.
The settlement gives the state the option to purchase Andrews’ property if at any point he wants to sell it. The settlement also will lead to Andrews granting a permanent parking easement to the state. The state intends to open The Grove as a museum, but currently there is no parking or public access.
The Grove, north of downtown Tallahassee, was built in the 19th Century by Richard Keith Call, who served as a territorial governor before Florida became a state. The state bought the home in 1985.
The agreement to end the Andrews public-records dispute came on the heels of Scott and the Cabinet agreeing to pay $55,000 in legal fees in June to settle a lawsuit alleging they violated the state’s Sunshine Law in the removal of longtime Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
Open-government advocates and media organizations had sued Scott and the Cabinet in February seeking documents involving Bailey’s abrupt departure two months earlier. The plaintiffs argued that Scott and the Cabinet used staff members as “conduits” in discussions about Bailey’s resignation.
The Herald/Times capital bureau reported the state spent at least $225,000 on its own legal costs in defense against the open-government advocates and media organizations.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida