TALLAHASSEE — The idea made sense: Create a "governor's park" around the Florida Governor's Mansion to spruce up the entrance by buying up shabby commercial property on the adjacent street and replace it with a grand boulevard and a visitors commons.
But it was an idea that was going to take cash. Lots of cash: $2.3 million for the project and $2.7 million more to acquire an old house, a pawn shop, a tire store and three other properties nearby, records from 2011 and 2012 show.
First Lady Ann Scott embraced the project. Mansion director Carol Beck was on board, the governor's deputies coordinated the effort with donations from the state's top industries and persuaded Republican legislative leaders to dedicate $2.5 million in the state budget. A lavish party at the Mansion was held to recognize the generosity of the corporate donors.
But while records show that everyone involved was using state time to do the work, they wanted to avoid creating a public records trail, so they used private email accounts and private cell phones to keep what they were doing out of the public eye.
The practice was part of the culture in the new governor's office. The governor's first two chiefs of staff, Mike Prendergast and Steve MacNamara, instructed employees to use personal emails and personal cell phone text messages to communicate anything that was sensitive, creating a barrier to access when records requests were made, former employees have told the Times/Herald.
The details about the governor's park emerged only after a judge ordered them released last year as part of a lawsuit by Tallahassee lawyer Steven R. Andrews. He successfully sued the governor and Cabinet for attempting to break a contract he had to purchase a building near the Mansion that houses his office.
Although Andrews' property wasn't initially included in the "governor's park" project, it was later rolled together in Scott's so-called "legacy project" that included updating the furnishings in the current mansion in addition to building the adjacent park.
Andrews sued the governor's office for withholding documents and, in the process, found that everyone from the first lady and her assistant to the mansion director and the governor's deputies — Carrie O'Rourke, Chris Finkbeiner and Carly Hermanson — used private email accounts and cell phones to communicate about the mansion project.
The governor's lawyers have also adopted a policy never before employed in state government, instructing employees that they were custodians of the public documents on their private accounts. The result: the governor's former employees must hire lawyers to represent them in handling records requests that traditionally had been the responsibility of the state.
"We follow the law," Scott told reporters last week, dismissing Andrews as "an individual that sues the state, tries to cause problems."
The governor's office "code of conduct" forbids text messages and requires that employees refrain from using personal email accounts "unless such use is necessary." Employees then must "retain them in accordance with the Department of State retention policy."
But, records show, the policies are widely ignored.
"This is foundation business, not EOG (Executive Office of the Governor,)'' wrote Carrie O'Rourke, the governor's deputy chief of staff in a Jan. 9, 2012, text message to Beck, the mansion curator. "Pls do not use that account moving forward."
And in an apparent attempt to avoid the appearance of fundraising on state time, Beck had checks sent to her home — instead of to a state building, according to records obtained by Andrews.
"Make checks payable to the Governors Mansion Foundation," Beck wrote in an email to potential contributor, former Scott campaign finance chairman Mike Fernandez, in January 2012. Beck used her private AOL account, not her state account, and added: "In order to expedite receipt, please mail to my attention at the following address." She then listed her home address.
Copied on the email was O'Rourke, using O'Rourke's private Yahoo account.
When Andrews, in a public records request, sought all documents and communications regarding the Mansion project, the governor's Office of Open Government replied that some documents could not be released because they were attorney "work product" and the text messages did not exist.
Colleen Andrews, a paralegal in the firm and Steve Andrews' wife, said she discovered the existence of the text messages after finding that Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard had sent text messages to O'Rourke about the mansion. The governor's office told Andrews to approach O'Rourke.
Colleen Andrews said she has doubts about whether what she has received is the true record. "I don't know if we're getting all the messages, are they holding some back and are some deleted?"
Brian Ballard, a prominent GOP fundraiser and member of the Governor's Mansion Foundation board, said that if there was any attempt at secrecy "it was an innocent mistake."
He said the goal of the Mansion Foundation was to enhance the entrance to the governor's residence "to celebrate our history and our Capitol" and there was "never a conversation" about shielding the campaign from the public.
O'Rourke and Beck would not respond to requests for comment. The governor's spokesman, John Tupps, would not comment on why the governor's office used private email accounts for public business or why private fundraising was managed on state time.
"The Mansion Foundation is a legislatively authorized direct support organization, whose function is to raise funds for public purposes; in this case historic preservation,'' he said.
When asked if it was the governor's policy to allow fundraising for private entities on state time, Tupps answered: "No."
Records obtained by Andrews show that O'Rourke, Beck and Ann Scott's aide, Sarah Hansford, actively sought to raise funds from some of the most powerful industries in the state — all of whom benefited from remaining in the governor's good graces.
Florida Power & Light, U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and Blue Cross Blue Shield wrote checks for $100,000 each. Donations for $20,000 also came in from Ballard, Scott political adviser Tony Fabrizio, lobbyist Billy Rubin, and George Zoley, the CEO of the private prison company The GEO Group, which runs two Florida prisons. Joe and Samara Caruncho, owner of the state's largest Medicare Advantage program, wrote a $25,000 check.
"U.S. Sugar just came thru w check for $100k!!!'' Beck wrote in a text to O'Rourke on Feb. 13. "Heading over to Ballard firm to pick up and deposit."
Ballard said the project is now on hold, in part, because of Andrews' lawsuits. After the governor's legal office released the records to Andrews, they also clarified their policy and required that all Mansion Foundation documents be retained as public records.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.