Florida lawmakers want same privacy as cops and judges, but why?

Sen. Kelli Stargel said lawmakers deserved the same level of privacy as police officers and judges, but offered no proof why such an extraordinary exemption in public records was necessary.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. [ STEVE CANNON | Special to the Times ]
Published Jan. 22, 2020|Updated Jan. 22, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Senate Bill 832 would give lawmakers and Cabinet members the same level of secrecy granted to police officers and judges, making their home addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth private.

But while threats made against cops and judges are an occupational hazard, lawmakers supporting the bill offered no evidence that they needed the same protections. Regardless, a Florida Senate committee approved the bill Tuesday, along party lines, that would make secret the most basic details about state lawmakers.

Under the bill, the personal information and places of employment of their spouses and children would be exempt. So, too, would be information that lawmakers don’t disclose when they run for office, such as the names and locations of the schools their children attend.

Four Republicans voted for and three Democrats voted against the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. She said the exemption was needed because of threats made to lawmakers, but she didn’t cite any Florida examples.

The bill has to pass two more committees before making it to the floor. A companion bill, House Bill 1191, sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, has not yet been heard in the House.

Providing such a broad exemption would be a stunning setback for Florida’s broad public records law, which makes a wide variety of state and local government records open to the public.

Knowing a lawmaker’s home address and a spouse’s employer are critical starting points to uncovering conflicts of interest and other scandals.

Not only are homes often a lawmaker’s biggest asset listed on their financial disclosure forms, but stories abound of lawmakers and local officials living outside their district.

In 2013, WPLG-TV found three then-Democratic state representatives living in nicer homes outside their districts.

In 2017, the Miami Herald reported that state Rep. Daisy Baez, D-Coral Cables, did not appear to live in her district. The reporting prompted a criminal investigation, which led to her resigning and pleading guilty to perjury six months later.

In 2018, the Miami Herald struggled to figure out where Democratic state Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami Shores, lived. The resulting scandal — and others — likely contributed to her defeat in the election later that year.

The scandals often follow redistricting, when lawmakers find their homes are no longer in their district and they have to buy or rent another property to be qualified to run in the new district. The next round of redistricting will take place following this year’s census.

That concern was raised by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, the only senator on Tuesday who raised concerns about the bill.

He said the bill was “problematic” because it didn’t allow the media or the public to verify where a lawmaker lived. He also said the case had not been made that there were enough threats to justify exempting such pertinent personal information.

Stargel, whose husband is a judge, has advocated for several controversial bills in recent years that have received national attention, including a bill this session that would require minors seeking an abortion to get the consent of their parents.

She said lawmaker addresses would still be reported to the Secretary of State and Division of Elections. Neither of those agencies actively verify whether a lawmaker lives where they claim they live, however.

Stargel said there was a need for the bill because of growing threats against lawmakers. She referenced the shootings of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Louisiana U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise. Giffords was shot in 2011 at a campaign event with constituents at a supermarket and Scalise was shot in 2017 during a Congressional baseball event at a public park. Both were shot far from home and in public settings. Stargel did not say how exempting their home addresses would have protected them.

Stargel also appeared to pose a random hypothetical as evidence, referencing state Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, whose wife just gave birth.

“His wife’s going to be home, alone, with three young children and an address that’s public,” she said with nary a mention of an actual threat made against Hutson’s family.

The need for the exemptions was “speculative at best,” according to Pamela Marsh, a former prosecutor and the president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation. Both the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald are members of the organization.

“We have seen no evidence that a threat of harm exists to these individuals or that such harm has, in fact, occurred,” Marsh wrote to wrote to Grall, the House sponsor, last week. The organization is against the idea.

No one spoke in favor of the bill on Tuesday. Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said he had “real concerns” about it.

“We believe that you are different than law enforcement," Templin told senators. "We believe that you are different than prosecuting attorneys...You volunteered. You put yourself up ... and said ‘I want this. I want this job.’”

Asked about the bill Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed reservations.

“You elect someone, you kind of need to know where they live if they’re going to represent your community,” DeSantis said.

The bill is one of nearly 70 filed during this year’s legislative session aimed at making secret more government records that are currently available to the public. The session is scheduled in end in March.

The News Service of Florida was used in this story.