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Ron DeSantis, Cabinet sued over meeting in Israel

The First Amendment Foundation, joined by several news organizations including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, filed a complaint Tuesday in Leon County Circuit Court contending that officials are “willfully violating” parts of the state Constitution.
At a ceremony to announce a research partnership between Ariel University & Florida Atlantic University, billionaire national GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson (seated), talks with Gov. Ron DeSantis. [Twitter]
Published May 28
Updated May 28

TALLAHASSEE -- Open government advocates are suing to stop the Florida Cabinet from holding a scheduled meeting in Israel on Wednesday, alleging that the body is violating the state’s open meetings law by convening abroad and not opening the meeting to the public.

The First Amendment Foundation, joined by several news organizations including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, filed a complaint Tuesday in Leon County Circuit Court contending that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — are “willfully violating” parts of the state Constitution by holding the meeting more than 6,000 miles away from the state Capitol and in the restricted confines of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Judge Angela Dempsey, who was assigned the case, rejected the emergency complaint in a brief decision Tuesday afternoon, noting “there is no indication the Summons have been served” to the defendants. Lawyers for the foundation and news organizations filed an emergency motion for reconsideration shortly thereafter.

In an email sent Tuesday evening, the governor’s office indicated the Cabinet meeting was still expected to be held Wednesday as planned, with a livestream broadcast online and in the traditional Cabinet meeting room in the state Capitol building.

Though spokespeople for the governor’s office have said the meeting, part of an ongoing trip to Israel billed as a trade mission, is “ceremonial,” lawyers representing the groups wrote the meeting is still subject to public notice and access under the state’s Sunshine law.

“The meeting has been termed an ‘information gathering’ session. But, even crediting this view, the law is clear that ‘information gathering’ sessions fall within the Sunshine Law’s requirements,” the lawsuit contends. ”Moreover, the meeting is being held over 6,000 miles away from the citizens of Florida, and in a secured U.S. State Department facility for which the public does not have ready access … Holding a meeting at this distance in such a facility violates the constitutional and statutory rights of Florida citizens (and the news media) to personally observe the workings of, and for the public to offer comment to, their state’s highest officials.”

The suit is being filed by the Tampa law firm of Thomas & LoCicero. The First Amendment Foundation, the named plaintiff, is seeking injunctive relief. In the event the meeting proceeds, the suit asks that all actions taken be voided. Several news organizations, including the Herald, Times, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and publishers Gannett and Gatehouse Media, have also signed onto the suit. (Carol Jean LoCicero, who chairs the board of trustees for the First Amendment Foundation, is a partner of the firm.)

DeSantis announced in early April that he would lead a trade mission to Israel, but few details were released until last week about the itinerary or the agenda for the planned meeting of the Cabinet at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. The agenda for the “ceremonial” meeting, scheduled Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. local time, includes consideration of a resolution on the “Israeli-Florida relationship” as well as presentations on “victims of terror,” “water quality” and “emergency management.” Members of the media who are traveling with the delegation will not be allowed to use laptops of cellphones while attending the meeting, and only one news outlet is being allowed to livestream the meeting.

“This has nothing to do with the trip or the trade mission. It has everything to do with the Constitution,” said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, noting that the Cabinet is scheduled to hold another meeting in early June shortly after it returns from Israel. “The Constitution says that we have a right of access to any meeting of any collegial body where public business is to be transacted or discussed. They’re going to be getting presentations and presumably discussing items of grave critical concern to people throughout the state of Florida.”

Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s office, said she had not reviewed the filing: “I am not going to comment on pending litigation at this time.”

Under the state’s open government laws, meetings of public agencies like the Cabinet must preceded with reasonable notice of when and where they will be held, as well as what will be addressed. Though meetings can be held outside of Tallahassee provided justification, this is the first time in recent memory that a Cabinet meeting has been held abroad, said Gregg Thomas, one of the lawyers on the suit.

Thomas had noted the difficulty in serving the Cabinet with the complaint shortly after the case was filed.

“There are some hurdles with regard to service of the complaint, since all of the defendants are in Israel,” he said. “[It] just amplifies the problem of doing the government’s business 6,000 miles away from the state of Florida.”

Sitting in the lounge of the Hilton Tel Aviv following a networking reception for the nearly 100 business delegation members led by DeSantis at the U.S Ambassador’s residence, Moody and Patronis – two of the three members of the Cabinet – said they had heard about the lawsuit but refused to comment.

“I haven’t looked at the pleading,” Moody said.

When asked for his comment, Patronis nodded at Moody and said, “She’s my lawyer.”

Fried, the third member of the Cabinet, said she had not yet been served by the lawsuit, but that “it’s my hope that this ceremonial Cabinet meeting and trade mission will follow that spirit of accessibility.”

“My understanding is that the Governor’s office is working to address the situation,” she added.

Hours earlier, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman thanked DeSantis for his efforts as a member of Congress to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Israel has no greater friend in all the 50 governor mansions than Ron DeSantis,” Friedman said. “I welcome you and the Cabinet members and your delegation to this small but incredibly important country.”

DeSantis said this was his first visit to the residence because he was so focused on getting the embassy moved.

“Holding a meeting of the Florida Cabinet in the embassy in Jerusalem, that is going to be a real neat thing,” he told the crowd of delegates mingling with Israeli business leaders on the back lawn overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The lawsuit was filed even as DeSantis and his director of communications Helen Ferré were discussing the logistics of the Cabinet meeting and the signing of an anti-Semitism bill sponsored by Rep. Randy Fine of Melbourne Beach, who is part of the business delegation.

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