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From DCF to Pam Bondi, Nothing But Contempt for Florida’s Sunshine Law

| June 30, 2016

pam bondi

Attorney General Pam Bondi is all for protecting guns or fighting same-sex marriage, but when it comes to Florida’s Sunshine law, she passes. (Rick Scott)

By Florence Snyder

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is not the worst offender in Florida’s never-ending War on Open Government.

It just gets caught in the act more often than fellow offenders at the state, county and municipal levels.


That’s because DCF is one of the few agencies left which ever has to contend with watchdog journalism.

DCF chieftains, lawyers and flacks are well-acquainted with the well-oiled BS detector of the Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller, a veteran investigative reporter who knows the difference between transparency, and transparent nonsense.

But they keep trying to buffalo her, anyway.

The latest example involves the case of Sophia Hines. She’s currently residing in the Broward County jail, charged with suffocating her infant son and toddler daughter. Hines, a resident of Pennsylvania, had been receiving services from that state’s child welfare authorities.

Marbin Miller “cobbled together” some of the sad story of how Hines ended up in Florida and the children ended up dead, but only after days of being diddled by DCF while its lawyers tried and failed to come up with a good excuse to keep secrets on Pennsylvania’s behalf.

“Though child protection records remain sealed in Pennsylvania, they are considered public record in Florida when a youngster dies from abuse or neglect,” Marbin Miller reports in her June 25 front-page story. “For about two weeks, the Florida Department of Children & Families sought to shield records of the Hines children from disclosure, saying Pennsylvania’s confidentiality extended to Florida, a claim First Amendment lawyers disputed. DCF ultimately relented, and released all of the records to the Herald Friday.”


It’s been decades since Florida had an elected statewide official who paid much more than lip service to open government.


State agencies employ an army of well-paid lawyers and “communications professionals” to play public records keep-away. They do it — with our money — because they can.

It’s been decades since Florida had an elected statewide official who paid much more than lip service to open government.

In 1992, Florida voters passed, by an 83 percent majority, Amendment 24 to Article 1 of the state constitution. Nicknamed the Sunshine Amendment, it was supposed to drench existing open government laws in a thick coat of permanent sunlight.

Almost immediately, the Legislature began throwing shade and thumbing its nose at voters.

The First Amendment Foundation, which has the depressing task of keeping track, reports that since 1995, the Legislature has passed 240 bills creating exemptions to our open government laws.

The contempt for open government is entirely bipartisan; more than half those bills were approved unanimously by both Legislative chambers. The Senate, which loves to call itself the more “deliberative” chamber, has approved exemptions unanimously 151 times.

Florida’s current attorney general, Pam Bondi, spends a lot of public money in court and a lot of time on cable news “defending” gun rights and gay marriage bans. She insists she’s just doing her job, protecting Florida’s Constitution and guarding against “federal overreach.”

context floridaBondi is far less aggressive when it comes to protecting Florida’s constitutional right of access to public records and meetings. Like most of her recent predecessors, Democrat and Republican alike, Bondi has treated the Sunshine Amendment as an unloved, unwanted poor relation. Think Catelyn Stark and Jon Snow.

In the wake of the June 12 mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, reporters requested documents about the killer and the police response — which are plainly public record under Florida law.

Bondi said nothing and did nothing, as federal and local officials told the press to pound sand.

On June 15, Florida Politics’ reporter Jim Rosica asked Bondi for an explanation. She has yet to answer, perhaps because there is no principled answer to be given by an attorney general who claims to be a defender of Florida’s faith in Florida’s Constitution.

Florence Snyder is a Tallahassee-based corporate lawyer who has spent most of her career in and around newspapers and, more recently, online. Reach her by email here

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12 Responses for “From DCF to Pam Bondi, Nothing But Contempt for Florida’s Sunshine Law”

  1. rst says:

    Give Anderson Cooper a try; he’ll get an answer…

  2. Public Meetings in the Sunshine Says says:

    Looks like the Fox is guarding the Henhouse.

    Florida Attorney General Accused of Violating the Sunshine Law

    In court documents filed this week in Leon County Circuit Court, the accuser portrays a department that allows employees to manually delete emails before they are archived, among other things.

    by Mary Ellen Klas, McClatchy News Service / April 7, 2014 0

    A Tallahassee attorney engaged in a bitter property fight with the state is accusing Attorney General Pam Bondi of destroying emails, failing to retain text messages and violating the state’s public records laws.

    Bondi, the chief custodian of the state’s Sunshine law, has acknowledged some documents were inadvertently missing from the records request of Stephen R. Andrews, but her office vigorously rejects his claims.

    “These allegations are without merit,’’ said Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray.

    In court documents filed this week in Leon County Circuit Court, Andrews portrays a department that allows employees to manually delete emails before they are archived, relies on an outdated email archival system and allows metadata to routinely be destroyed.

    He claims that in at least 19 instances, emails were destroyed and the attorney general’s office failed to properly retain text messages after he filed a request for a document hold.

    Andrews said he discovered the omissions only after he cross-referenced the emails he received from the attorney general through a public records search with those obtained from other agencies. He is asking a judge for a forensic search of all backup servers and storage devices at the agency.

    Ray refused requests to explain what the department’s policy is regarding retaining emails and text messages.

    Bondi’s attorney, Stephanie A. Daniel, has responded in court documents that the department has produced more than 6,700 pages of private emails, calendars and text messages, and denies they are violating any public records laws. She also accuses Andrews of being unwilling to cooperate and often slow to reply for clarification on his numerous public records requests.

    Andrews’ public records feud began in 2012 when the Department of Environmental Protection tried to shield from public view a memo and maps that detailed a proposed Governor’s Park, a six block by three-and-a-half block area in downtown Tallahassee.

    The land once belonged to former Gov. LeRoy Collins and includes the office building now home to Andrews’ law firm. The governor and Cabinet voted to buy the property two years ago, in spite of a contract between Andrews and the Collins estate that allowed him to buy his office building.

    Andrews filed suit and a judge ordered the state to release the documents. He has been in litigation since then and has made numerous records requests for documents from the governor and Cabinet officials.

    In court documents, Bondi’s attorney admits that some documents were missing from department’s public records given to Andrews because of several factors, including “an oversight,’’ a “technology error” and “a copy and pasting error.”

    Andrews claims that at least 61 emails have been shielded from the public record. When he asked for documents to be turned over, he claims the agency repeatedly failed to use proper search terms.

    Daniel wrote in a response to the Andrews’ allegations last month that Andrews had received emails from staff at the attorney general’s office from another agency, but “the omission to produce this handful of emails was an oversight, and in no way the result of a refusal to provide records.”

    Andrews also found an email from Deborah Stevens, the department’s director of Information Technology, citing a 2012 newspaper article about a City of Sarasota policy that inadvertently allowed employees to delete emails before being archived. Stevens wrote that the attorney general’s office has “an even bigger vulnerability than the City of Sarasota” and, Andrews alleged, did nothing about it.

    Andrews, who is investigating similar records claims against the Executive Office of the Governor, the Department of State and the Department of Environmental Protection, is asking the judge to order a forensic review of Bondi’s computers.

    ©2014 The Miami Herald

    0 COMMENTS

    Livefyre

    Guest

    A Tallahassee attorney engaged in a bitter property fight with the state is accusing Attorney General Pam Bondi of destroying emails, failing to retain text messages and violating the state’s public records laws.

    Bondi, the chief custodian of the state’s Sunshine law, has acknowledged some documents were inadvertently missing from the records request of Stephen R. Andrews, but her office vigorously rejects his claims.

    “These allegations are without merit,’’ said Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray.

    In court documents filed this week in Leon County Circuit Court, Andrews portrays a department that allows employees to manually delete emails before they are archived, relies on an outdated email archival system and allows metadata to routinely be destroyed.

    He claims that in at least 19 instances, emails were destroyed and the attorney general’s office failed to properly retain text messages after he filed a request for a document hold.

    Andrews said he discovered the omissions only after he cross-referenced the emails he received from the attorney general through a public records search with those obtained from other agencies. He is asking a judge for a forensic search of all backup servers and storage devices at the agency.

    Ray refused requests to explain what the department’s policy is regarding retaining emails and text messages.

    Bondi’s attorney, Stephanie A. Daniel, has responded in court documents that the department has produced more than 6,700 pages of private emails, calendars and text messages, and denies they are violating any public records laws. She also accuses Andrews of being unwilling to cooperate and often slow to reply for clarification on his numerous public records requests.

    Andrews’ public records feud began in 2012 when the Department of Environmental Protection tried to shield from public view a memo and maps that detailed a proposed Governor’s Park, a six block by three-and-a-half block area in downtown Tallahassee.

    The land once belonged to former Gov. LeRoy Collins and includes the office building now home to Andrews’ law firm. The governor and Cabinet voted to buy the property two years ago, in spite of a contract between Andrews and the Collins estate that allowed him to buy his office building.

    Andrews filed suit and a judge ordered the state to release the documents. He has been in litigation since then and has made numerous records requests for documents from the governor and Cabinet officials.

    In court documents, Bondi’s attorney admits that some documents were missing from department’s public records given to Andrews because of several factors, including “an oversight,’’ a “technology error” and “a copy and pasting error.”

    Andrews claims that at least 61 emails have been shielded from the public record. When he asked for documents to be turned over, he claims the agency repeatedly failed to use proper search terms.

    Daniel wrote in a response to the Andrews’ allegations last month that Andrews had received emails from staff at the attorney general’s office from another agency, but “the omission to produce this handful of emails was an oversight, and in no way the result of a refusal to provide records.”

    Andrews also found an email from Deborah Stevens, the department’s director of Information Technology, citing a 2012 newspaper article about a City of Sarasota policy that inadvertently allowed employees to delete emails before being archived. Stevens wrote that the attorney general’s office has “an even bigger vulnerability than the City of Sarasota” and, Andrews alleged, did nothing about it.

    Andrews, who is investigating similar records claims against the Executive Office of the Governor, the Department of State and the Department of Environmental Protection, is asking the judge to order a forensic review of Bondi’s computers.

    ©2014 The Miami Herald

    0 COMMENTS

    Livefyre

    Guest

  3. Born and Raised Here says:

    When someone moves to Florida they give up all rights of there previous State, and all there records from their previous State should become public to Florida..

  4. Knightwatch says:

    Florida’s republicaNRAs act with complete impunity (and immunity). They can, and do, ignore laws, ethics and just plain good governance because they control the state’s legislature, the judiciary, and law enforcement and watchdog agencies. They do as they please and run roughshod over Florida’s sunshine laws.

    Clean these radical ideologues out. Vote Democrat.

  5. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    You mean the person whose PAC took donations from Trump and, as a consequence, passed on a collective lawsuit against his Trump University venture, the same person that trashed the LGBT crowd and then sang their praises after the Orlando nightclub shooting and lied about posting her support on her website and was caught in the lie, I mean the same person that rescheduled an execution because it conflicted with her fundraiser, really, you’re saying that this person, who just had allegations of bribery with evidence against her submitted to the US Attorney’s office might …. not take the florida sunshine law seriously? Really? Well, I never.

  6. Mark says:

    Do the clinton’s follow the Sunshine Law while in Florida? Oooops, I forgot, they are above the law.

  7. Moving toward the dark side says:

    Reach out to your elected lawmakers and tell them to represent the people and keep Florida the Sunshine state! We the people don’t need or deserve to be in the dark.

    http://www.mypalmbeachpost.com/news/news/opinion/floridas-open-government-laws-must-consta/nqmFx/

  8. A.S.F. says:

    Methinks that attorney Florence Snyder might have some “special interests” at stake herself.

  9. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Dear Mark, thank you for pointing out the fact that the florida sunshine law applies to open government within the state of florida. I know you were trying to be clever and edgy by alleging that the clintons don’t follow the florida sunshine law because they’re somehow above the law, however, I suspect that the reason why the clintons aren’t subject to it is in reality due to the fact that neither bill or hillary clinton hold a political office within florida. Hope that helps, and in the future you might want to let others handle the cleverness and edginess lest you continue to look like an idiot.

  10. Geezer says:

    Pam Bondi turns her world “Bondi Blue.”

  11. Sunshine Law says says:

    Florida in the Sunshine Law Manual
    From Pages 42-45 from the Attorney General’s Website

    (4) Cameras and tape recorders
    A board or commission may adopt reasonable rules and policies which ensure the orderly
    conduct of a public meeting and require orderly behavior on the part of those persons attending
    a public meeting. A board, however, may not ban the use of nondisruptive recording devices.
    Pinellas County School Board v. Suncam, Inc., 829 So. 2d 989 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002) (school board’s
    ban on unobtrusive videotaping invalid). Accord AGO 91-28. And see AGO 77-122 (silent
    nondisruptive tape recording of district meeting permissible).
    The Legislature in Ch. 934, F.S., appears to implicitly recognize the public’s right to silently
    record public meetings. AGO 91-28. Chapter 934, F.S., the Security of Communications Act,
    regulates the interception of oral communications. Section 934.02(2), F.S., however, defines
    “[o]ral communication” to specifically exclude “any public oral communication uttered at a
    public meeting . . . .” See also Inf. Op. to Gerstein, July 16, 1976, stating that public officials
    may not complain that they are secretly being recorded during public meetings in violation of s.
    934.03, F.S.
    c. Tape recording or Internet archive as minutes
    The Sunshine Law does not require that public boards and commissions tape record their
    meetings. See AGO 86-21. However, other statutes may require that certain proceedings be
    recorded. Cf. AGO 10-42 (where statute requires that all closed proceedings of child abuse
    death review committee be recorded and that no portion be off the record, audio recording of the
    proceedings “would appear to be the most expedient and cost-efficient manner to ensure that all
    discussion is recorded”).
    However, while a board is authorized to tape record the proceedings if it chooses to do
    so, the Sunshine Law also requires written minutes. AGO 75-45. Similarly, while a board may
    archive the full text of all workshop discussions conducted on the Internet, written minutes of the
    workshops must also be prepared and promptly recorded. AGO 08-65. Moreover, the tape recordings
    are public records and their retention is governed by schedules established by the Division of Library
    and Information Services of the Department of State in accordance with s. 257.36(6), F.S. AGO 86-21.
    Accord AGO 86-93 (tape recordings of school board meetings are subject to Public Records Act even
    though written minutes are required to be prepared and made available to the public).

    Why hasn’t the case against SOE Kim Weeks already been dropped?

  12. Sherry says:

    Thanks DTTF. . . your comment to Mark was right on. . . and a great laugh!

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