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Sunshine law applies to prison industries

PRIDE Inc., the prison industry designed to help inmates with rehabilitation, is subject to the state's public meetings and records laws, Attorney General Charlie Crist said Monday.

In a formal opinion written in response to questions by Corrections Secretary James Crosby, Crist said the state's Government in the Sunshine Laws requiring that meetings be open to the public applies to the governing board of PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises).

Florida law requires that meetings of public agencies not only be open to the public, but scheduled only after "reasonable notice" of the meeting is given, and minutes must be taken.

PRIDE must open its meetings, Crist said.

In response to another question posed by Crosby, Crist said Florida law includes no provision that would allow PRIDE to close a meeting while it discusses proprietary confidential business information that might be exempt from the public records law.

"Accordingly I am of the opinion that PRIDE may not hold a closed meeting when considering proprietary confidential business information in the absence of a specific exemption or exception," Crist wrote.

As secretary of the state agency that oversees prisons, Crosby sits on PRIDE's board of directors. His position at the state agency does not mean confidential information of a proprietary nature would automatically become public when he receives it, Crist added.

PRIDE ousted its two top executives in July after meeting in closed session in Tampa.

The action came after the St. Petersburg Times questioned millions of dollars in loans to a spinoff business PRIDE created.

Gov. Jeb Bush has asked his inspector general to investigate PRIDE's relationship with the spinoff companies. PRIDE's board is appointed by the governor and has often claimed it is not a public agency.

PRIDE was organized to help train prison inmates in Florida so they can hold meaningful jobs when they complete their sentences. Bush and some other officials have questioned a contract the company negotiated with Utah prisoners for Arctic wear.

PRIDE invested more than $10-million in spinoff companies like the one that uses Utah prisoners while PRIDE's revenues dropped more than 30 percent and its inmate jobs dropped to a 15-year low. At the same time the salary of Pam Davis, who was chief executive officer at Pride, increased 35 percent since 2000 to $236,000.

The PRIDE board ousted Davis and an assistant in July, but Davis remained at the helm of the spinoff company.

Davis and PRIDE's board of directors have denied wrongdoing.