Bill inspired by missing Rick Scott transition emails now heads to his desk

TALLAHASSEE — A new public records law inspired by Gov. Rick Scott will require future governors and other statewide officials to preserve emails during the time between when they are elected and take office.

The final passage of the bill on Wednesday follows Times/Herald disclosures that some of Scott's email communications with members of his transition team disappeared during the two months between his election and swearing-in in late 2010.

The measure, which heads to Scott's desk after a unanimous Senate vote, requires statewide officials to "adopt and implement reasonable measures to ensure compliance" with public records law and to comply with records retention requirements. A leading supporter said the bill was needed to close a "loophole" that arose during Scott's transition to power.

"We all read the newspaper," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, when asked at a House hearing why the law was necessary. "I think that in recent months the lack of clarity on this law became apparent, and we're simply seeking to close that loophole."

The lost emails are still the subject of an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which Scott requested. "It's still an active investigation. They're still working it," FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

Scott advisers acknowledged last August that a private company that provided email service to dozens of transition team members deleted the records in January 2011, about the time the Times/Herald first sought them. Scott's team attempted to recover his messages from the personal accounts of his top-level staff.

Lacking access to the server, it could not be determined how many emails from Scott or his staff vanished between Scott's election and his inauguration. The hectic two-month period was a time of important activity when the new administration made key hiring decisions and developed Scott's first-year agenda.

Some messages delivered to Scott's handheld BlackBerry device during the transition also disappeared.

The new law will apply to five people, referred to "officers-elect" in the bill, to mean the governor, lieutenant governor and three elected Cabinet members, the attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner. All serve four-year terms and are up for re-election in 2014.

Scott's chief spokesman, Brian Burgess, said the governor will sign the bill, HB 1305, which passed the Senate 40-0 and the House, 115-0.

"The governor wholeheartedly supports and will sign the bill because it clarifies state law relating to transition records for incoming elected officials, a benefit he did not have when he was elected," Burgess said.

The Department of State, the agency that archives public records, has said that transition records fall under the same public records laws as the governor's office. The department has transition records for governors dating back to 1971.

When the bill was debated in a House committee, Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, asked why the bill should not also apply to all officials during their transitions between election and swearing-in. Adkins told Kriseman that it would be "a bit burdensome" to do that.

One potential loophole remains: the precise time the five officials are elected. The bill is silent on that point, but an election is not considered official until the results are certified by a three-member Election Canvassing Commission, which can take up to 14 days.

Bill inspired by missing Rick Scott transition emails now heads to his desk 03/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 11:56pm]

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