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DeSantis’, other officials’ travel records would be secret under Florida bill

The measure, which would impose the first-ever public records exemption for the transportation records held by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, would be retroactive.
 
State law allows governors to use state planes for political and personal travel for security reasons but, as Gov. Ron DeSantis conducts a national book tour in anticipation of a likely presidential campaign, questions are mounting about whether taxpayer funds have been used to finance his travel and other political operations.
State law allows governors to use state planes for political and personal travel for security reasons but, as Gov. Ron DeSantis conducts a national book tour in anticipation of a likely presidential campaign, questions are mounting about whether taxpayer funds have been used to finance his travel and other political operations. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published March 23, 2023|Updated March 23, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Citing an increase in public records requests for the governor’s travel schedule, Florida legislators are advancing a bill that would shield from the public any information about how and where Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials go.

The bill would impose the first-ever public records exemption for the transportation records held by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency that handles the governor’s security.

The exemption would take effect retroactively, prohibiting anyone from scrutinizing how DeSantis has used his state travel in the past and as he prepares for a likely campaign for the Republican nomination for president.

Related: DeSantis casts shade on Florida’s open-records Sunshine Law

“There has been an increase in public records requests regarding our governor and his travel simply because of his notoriety and his position for the past few years,” said Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, the Senate sponsor of the bill.

State law allows governors to use state planes for political and personal travel for security reasons but, as DeSantis conducts a national book tour in anticipation of a likely presidential campaign, questions are mounting about whether taxpayer funds have been used to finance his travel and other political operations.

In the past, when state officials have used state assets for political purposes, they have been expected to reimburse taxpayers for those efforts.

During DeSantis’ term, the governor’s staff has refused to disclose many of the details of his political schedule. Media requests to the Department of Law Enforcement for information about the schedule, as well as information about whether taxpayers have been reimbursed, have been met with either no answer or months of delay.

The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, for example, last year asked for several weeks of the governor’s schedule kept by the Department of Law Enforcement. That so-called “line-by-line” schedule provides more detail than the often incomplete schedule released by his communications staff at the end of each day. But, aside from providing a handful of heavily redacted schedules from the month of June and one week in August, the Department of Law Enforcement withheld the remaining requests from disclosure, citing a backlog in records requests.

Some governors and lawmakers have misused state travel

Florida has a history of scrutinizing its elected officials for using state planes for political and personal purposes.

In 1996, former Gov. Lawton Chiles was caught using Florida’s state planes to attend Bill Clinton-Al Gore fundraisers. In 2003, Florida Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, admitted to using state planes for weekend trips home, despite a state law that prohibited the use of state planes for commuting. In 2010, former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, admitted to using a state plane to promote a pro-business initiative and then attended a Miami campaign fundraiser.

The public learned about those and other politicians who used taxpayer funds for private and political business because reporters obtained the records.

Related: Judge orders Rick Scott to release travel, campaign records; Governor will appeal

The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee voted 8-0 on Wednesday for SB 1616, which would make exempt travel information for “the governor, the governor’s immediate family, visiting governors and their families, the lieutenant governor, a member of the Cabinet, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the Senate, or the chief justice of the Supreme Court” and people who travel with them.

Martin said he sponsored the bill at the request of the Department of Law Enforcement, which told him that the volume of public records requests for the information was concerning.

“They were like, wait a second, if all of this gets out, people can put together things that we’re doing to protect the governor and figure out who the people we have, and which hotels we stay at, and things like that,” Martin said after the vote. “I don’t think we’re trying to hide what the governor is doing or who he’s meeting with. I think what we’re trying to do is protect the people that are protecting him.”

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted 17-0 on Tuesday for a companion bill, HB 1495.

Unanimous committee vote, but there are opponents

Although the bills received bipartisan support, not everyone said the exemptions are a good idea.

“Exemptions are supposed to be drawn as narrowly as possible. Was this narrowly drawn and was there an overriding public reason for this?” asked Sen. Lori Berman, D-West Palm Beach. “I don’t think so. I will be voting against this. But I may be in the extreme minority.”

Barbara Petersen, director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit public records watchdog, and Bobby Block, director of the First Amendment Foundation, both said the bill as written was unnecessarily broad.

“While there could be some security concerns regarding the governor’s current or future travel, I see no justification for protecting past travel,” Petersen said. “Who the governor is meeting with, who is traveling with him, who’s paying for the travel, are all questions critical to the public’s ability to hold the governor accountable.”

“Are the purposes of the trips in the interests of the citizens of the state or could it be the governor is spending money on his political agenda or career that isn’t in Florida?” Block asked. “By exempting this information — that many times would have nothing to do with his physical safety — it excludes the public from ever knowing what it is costing us and what benefits they are getting from these travels.”

Michael Barfield, director of public access for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said the legislation “is inconsistent with the governor’s claim that Florida is a state that protects freedoms.”

“Where the governor is traveling and who he is meeting with has been a fundamental right for decades under Florida’s right-to-know laws,” Barfield said. “This is another example of the lack of accountability for taxpayer money under the DeSantis administration.”

Block noted that former Gov. Jeb Bush had a brother “who was in the White House and whose friends were running the Department of Homeland Security and he didn’t feel the need for this. Are we being told the truth about the reason for the need for this?”

FDLE: Threat levels have changed

Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson Gretl Plessinger said the agency supports the legislation and that security threats have changed since Bush was governor.

“The threat picture has changed significantly over the last decade with violence and attempted violence against elected and appointed officials nationally,” she said in an email. “Releasing Protective Operations details represents a risk not only to those we protect, but also FDLE agents and citizens attending events.”

Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said she supported the amendment because she agrees that the security risks for elected officials have increased.

“Despite my disdain for this governor, I think there should be protection for a future governor,” she said. “But I do think we need to have more accountability and transparency.”

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