Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

Agencies blocking access to records of Orlando killings

Government agencies are refusing to release basic public records about Omar Mateen and the deadly Orlando shootings.

In the days after the nightclub attack, news gatherers across the country who requested documents about the shooter and the police response, and have been told many of those records -— even those created years before the killings — are confidential because they are part of an official investigation.

Pat Gleason, special counsel for open government in the Florida Attorney General's Office, said the documents are a public record.

"Can an agency withhold information simply because another agency asked them to?" she asked. "The answer to that is no."

The Tampa Bay Times, for instance, asked the Department of Agriculture for information about Mateen's security guard license, which he obtained almost a decade ago. A spokeswoman at the agriculture department says the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement must authorize the information's release.

The Times also reached out to the Fort Pierce Police Department asking for all cases in which Mateen, his relatives and others were named as a suspect, victim or witness. In response to this routine request, the agency refused and said the documents are part of an active criminal investigation.

Two dozen media outlets have asked the Orlando Police Department for 911 calls and radio communications. The city will not release these communications.

An attorney for those outlets sent a letter to the city on Tuesday, explaining that the records should not be exempt from disclosure.

"Even in critical and challenging times, transparency is important," wrote attorney Rachel Fugate. "It helps the citizens of Orlando and the state of Florida and people throughout the United States have a better understanding of what transpired and try to come to grasp with this horrific and unimaginable tragedy."

Florida has broad public records laws that normally allow for the release of these and other records.

Public officials are clearly violating the law, news leaders and open government experts said.

Said Mindy Marques, president of the Florida Society of News Editors: "These are Florida state records and we are entitled to these records under the state's public records laws. They don't cease to be public based on who is investigating the incident. There are many important questions raised in the wake of this tragedy, and it's our responsibility to try to find answers. The state needs to live up to the law."

Agencies cannot retroactively exempt a document from disclosure. Even if the FBI seized records as part of an investigation, the law requires a copy to be kept and made available.

"The FBI doesn't get to override Florida's Constitution," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "That's not the way this works.

"They are trying to control the stream of information.

"They are trying to control what people know."

Times staff writer Howard Altman contributed to this report.

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