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We have a right to know this stuff

Should government be able to keep the names of public employees and the amount of money they are paid a secret? How about the ones drawing a regular salary and a pension?

Of course not. Sounds like a prescription for corruption.

But that is exactly what the Legislature has allowed to happen.

Call it public records exemptions out of control. Every year lawmakers add more and more exemptions to a public records law that once was a model for the nation. (Today is Sunshine Sunday, when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors wants to demonstrate how important our open-records laws are to our democracy. This column is my small part.)

While working on a story about a Collier County judge who secretly "retired'' and returned to the same job, collecting retirement benefits of $7,730 a month and his annual salary of $123,608, I discovered he was not alone.

According to the 2007 annual report prepared by the Florida Retirement System, there were 210 other elected officials in Florida who were doing the same thing. Plus a lot of senior management officers and as many as 7,700 other members of the retirement system.

The number of officials who were "double dipping'' has been steadily increasing since state legislators started tinkering with retirement laws, gradually writing in one exemption after another to a law that was designed to encourage senior management officers to retire and make way for younger, lesser paid employees.

So who were they? Who were these "double dippers"?

I asked the Division of Retirement for a list. No way, they said. No list of "retirees'' can be released. It's a state secret.

Wait a minute, I protested. These people are clearly not retired. They were drawing paychecks as state employees in addition to retirement checks.

Lawmakers made the list secret to keep unscrupulous vendors from trying to sell things to the state's retirees, apparently unaware that they would also be keeping Floridians from taking a look at how public money is being spent.

After a week or so of trying without success to get the record, I called Gov. Charlie Crist to ask if he really wanted to keep these things secret. He immediately agreed that this information should be public and ordered the list released.

The secrecy did not end there. The list we ultimately got has a lot of blank spaces on it. Seems that the state doesn't have to disclose the amounts paid to employees and elected officials who decided to enroll in an investment plan instead of getting a monthly retirement check. That's another exemption carved into the public records law by the Legislature.

Next, amid howls of outrage from citizens who read about the first list, we sought a list of university employees who are collecting retirement checks and salaries that were not included in the first list.

More howls from some university officials who didn't want to part with their list. Some, like the University of South Florida, wanted to charge us a bunch of money for the list. Some just ignored our request. The University of Central Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University immediately produced their lists.

We managed to get a list that may or may not be complete from the State Division of Retirement. You would be shocked, I'm sure, to know that there are more than 350 university employees getting a retirement check and a regular salary. Well, call it a regular salary if you think some making more than $100,000 deserve a second paycheck from state government.

Such is life when you deal with state government. Fortunately the governor has appointed a commission to review our open government laws. We can only hope it will find the flaws that need to be fixed.

Perhaps they will take a look at the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the group that looks into reports of misconduct among judges. Any group that meets in an undisclosed location and doesn't have to even identify the complaints that are filed should get a little bit more attention, even if we have to change the Constitution.

In the 1960s when the JQC was created to investigate judges, some thought all complaints should be public. But the secrecy advocates prevailed. Unless the commission files formal charges, everything remains secret.

Take the recent uproar in North Florida. Thirteen of his fellow judges filed a formal complaint against 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Charles Kahn Jr. accusing him of sexually harassing court employees. The JQC dismissed the complaint while deciding to pursue a complaint filed against a fellow judge who had the nerve to criticize Kahn's behavior.

We would never have known about the sexual harassment complaint but for information that leaked out as irate judges began complaining. Such secrecy leaves us no way to determine whether the JQC is doing its job or playing favorites to protect good ole boy judges.

Floridians might have more confidence in a judiciary that let us judge for ourselves.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com
or (850) 224-7263.

We have a right to know this stuff 03/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:56am]

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