Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Possible FDLE Sunshine Law violation won't be investigated by state attorney

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TALLAHASSEE — State Attorney Willie Meggs said Thursday that he will not investigate whether the state's open meetings law was violated by Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members in last month's ouster of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner.

"It doesn't ring my bell," Meggs told the Times/Herald. "If one of the Cabinet staff aides came to my office and wanted to confess, that's about the only way I'm going to prove a violation of the Sunshine Law. Short of that, I'd need a wiretap. People are generally smart enough that if they know they're violating the law, they're not going to put it in writing."

St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner formally asked Meggs to investigate whether staff aides working for the Cabinet and Scott colluded in Gerald Bailey's removal, violating the Sunshine Law's requirement that business be conducted in public.

It was the second time in a week that Meggs refused to investigate the Bailey case. Last week, he downplayed allegations from Bailey that Scott had politicized the law enforcement agency as "much ado about nothing" and "nothing more than a squabble."

Meggs' office in Tallahassee, the state's capital, is often asked to intervene in allegations of wrongdoing by state officials.

He told Weidner that his complaint was speculative, at best.

"He told me that he read about the case in the newspaper," Meggs said. "I told him unless he had personal knowledge of what happened, I couldn't investigate. I can't just investigate because someone read about it in the newspaper."

Weidner said Meggs' refusal sets an unrealistic standard for prosecuting open meetings and public records cases.

"It's an impossible burden to say I need to have witnessed it," Weidner said. "I don't think that's what the law requires for there to be an investigation. Clearly, there were conversations and emails that preceded Bailey's removal. It's wholly inconceivable that this happened without a public record."

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said it's not true that Sunshine Law cases are impossible to prosecute. Former state Sen. W.D. Childers was jailed for 60 days in 2003 for violating the open meetings law as an Escambia County commissioner.

"They're not easy to prove," Petersen said. "But if he got these staff aides under oath, is he saying that they're going to lie? This is my frustration. There is no agency responsible to enforce our right to access. That puts us in a corner with a state attorney who says that the case is too hard."

The setback comes a day after Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed that the open meetings law was violated and that Petersen take part in an outside investigation.

"I firmly believe it was done at the staff level," Bondi told reporters Wednesday, essentially blaming Scott's chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, and former general counsel Pete Antonacci, who, according to Bailey, told him to "retire or resign."

Meggs and his wife dined with Scott and First Lady Ann Scott at the Governor's Mansion two weeks ago, just as the FDLE fiasco was becoming a media firestorm.

While two other guests played key roles in the FDLE affair — Antonacci and Rick Swearingen, who replaced Bailey — Meggs said the subject didn't come up.

Meggs is a Democrat who says he supported Scott, a Republican, for his re-election. He said it was the first time he dined at the mansion with Scott but didn't know what prompted the invite.

"It was a very pleasant evening," Meggs said. "No business was discussed."

Another guest, state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, vouched for Meggs that no business was discussed.

"You have my word that I heard nothing about anything," Montford said.

Meggs, 71, said neither his cordial relationship with Scott nor his longtime friendship with Antonacci, a former Leon County prosecutor whom he has known professionally since the late 1970s, affected his decisions. He said he declined to look into either case because his experience as a prosecutor (he was first elected state attorney in 1985) tells him both lack evidence of wrongdoing.

"If it wasn't for the media, this would be a dead duck," Meggs said.

Weidner said he doesn't know what he'll do next. Petersen said it will take someone to sue.

"And that's a huge financial risk for someone to take," she said.

During a visit Thursday in Tampa, Scott expressed confidence in his staff and dismissed any notion that they are responsible for the controversy.

"I have a great chief of staff," Scott said at the Tampa Chamber of Commerce, where he was discussing his proposed $470 million communications services tax cut. "Melissa Sellers, along with my other team, is doing a great job."

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