Gov. Rick Scott's legal bills climb another $300,000 with payments to lawyers in Sunshine cases

Published August 13 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's legal bill to defend Gov. Rick Scott grew Wednesday, as the governor's office released documents showing he has agreed pay lawyers $300,000 for defending him in two open government cases that were settled.

The legal fees are on top of the nearly $1 million taxpayers have already spent to defend the governor and Cabinet in the cases.

This month, Scott agreed to pay Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews $700,000 to end a lawsuit alleging that the governor and several members of his staff violated state law when they created private email accounts to shield their communications from the public and then withheld the documents.

In June, Scott and the Cabinet agreed to pay $55,000 to St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner as well as public records advocates and media organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times, to settle another lawsuit. The groups alleged Scott and the Cabinet violated the state's open meeting laws when they ousted former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey with no public discussion or vote.

No one from the governor's office could be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

In an internal memo sought and obtained by the Times/Herald, the governor's office justified the settlement with Andrews as necessary "to avoid the cost, fees and expenses associated with the inevitable protracted litigation."

Documents show that the governor has agreed to pay private lawyers $164,999 to defend him in the Andrews case, including $10,000 to defend several former staff members who were individually sued by Andrews when the governor's office refused to turn over documents during Scott's 2014 re-election campaign.

The governor has agreed to pay another $139,249 to outside counsel in the Weidner case. The other Cabinet officials have disclosed they have spent a total of $225,000 in legal fees in that case.

The Times/Herald initially sought the documents on June 17 but the governor's office did not fill the records request until Wednesday, the same day the Times/Herald reported about a new policy quietly observed by the governor's office of open government — to post all executive branch records requests on the governor's open government website.

The two settlements were the first time a sitting governor has used taxpayer money to end public records cases pending against him. The decision has outraged public records advocates and others.

"I find this absolutely outrageous," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for the state's Sunshine laws. "Gov. Scott took an oath of office — twice — promising to uphold our Constitution. And we Floridians pay through the nose when he violates our constitutional right of access. Voters should be incensed."

Andrews first sued the governor and Cabinet in 2012 for violating a contract he had to purchase a building on which his law firm is located. The governor wanted to buy the land to create a "legacy park" around the mansion.

In the process of trying to obtain emails and documents relating to the case, Andrews discovered evidence that the governor and his staff had set up a series of privately-held Google mail accounts and used them to conduct public business.

After numerous attempts to obtain details from the email accounts relating to his case, Andrews alleged Scott not only withheld documents but engaged in "actively concealing them" and "conspiring with others" to conceal them.

According to the documents released on Wednesday, Andrews offered to settle the case in exchange for dropping the lawsuit, and all subpoenas for documents relating to it in exchange for $1.2 million, including all attorneys fees.

The documents Andrews sought could have revealed the extent to which Scott and his staff have attempted to circumvent the public records process by relying on private email and other means to avoid creating a records trail.

Court documents indicated that Andrews was also prepared to put under oath former members of the governor's executive staff, Brad Piepenbrink, Chris Finkbeiner, Sarah Hansford, Carly Hermanson and Carrie O'Rourke, all of whom Andrews was suing individually.

The final settlement instead gave Andrews $700,000, not including attorneys fees. The bulk of the payments will come out of the Department of Environmental Protection budget, which attempted to negotiate the purchase of the property that drew Andrews' first lawsuit.

The remainder of the money will be divided this way: $120,000 from the governor's office, $75,000 from the Office of Attorney General and $60,000 from the Department of State.

According to the documents, Scott's office is paying Andrews the $120,000 by creating a "contract" for services.

The service: "contentwide consequences." The money will come from the "grants and donations trust fund" of the governor's budget, documents say.

The boilerplate language of the contract asks if there are "legal challenges to the procurement." The answer given is "no."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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