1. Florida Politics

From the archives: Day 1, Jeb Bush skirts Sunshine Law

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is sworn in by Florida Chief Justice Major Harding, right, as Bush's wife Columba holds the Bible and their son George P., left, looks on Jan 5, 1999, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is sworn in by Florida Chief Justice Major Harding, right, as Bush's wife Columba holds the Bible and their son George P., left, looks on Jan 5, 1999, in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Published Jun. 3, 2015

Editor's note: Originally published Jan. 7, 1999

TALLAHASSEE — On his first full day in office, Gov. Jeb Bush met with the two most powerful public officials in Florida's Legislature, but the meetings weren't public.

Bush's staff refused to let reporters in to listen as he chatted with House Speaker John Thrasher and Senate President Toni Jennings.

The governor and his aides said the sessions were little more than "courtesy calls," but later they acknowledged they discussed tax cuts, Senate confirmation of appointments and the state's multibillion-dollar budget.

Florida's Constitution requires meetings between the state's top officials, where "pending legislation" or "formal legislation" is discussed, to be open.

Bush and his lawyer insist he was complying with the law and intends to operate in the open.

"We're up here to do the people's work, and we talked about these things in the broadest possible way," Bush told reporters later in the day, after Jennings and Thrasher had left. "It was not related to anything where formal legislation was discussed or any decisions were made based on that.

"And if it was, then that meeting would have been open. It didn't happen."

Bush, who had never held elected office until he was sworn in Tuesday, must get used to working under a microscope. Gone are the campaign days, when he could strategize with his political team and orchestrate events for the cameras.

He tussled with some reporters soon after winning the election, claiming that his transition work was not subject to public records laws because he was still a private citizen. At the time, he promised things would be different once he took office, saying he intends to be more open than past governors.

As governor, Bush's troubles began early Wednesday as his staff faced a frustrated group of news reporters in the foyer of the governor's office.

His aides had released a schedule showing he would be holding "office hours" all day. The schedule did not include notice of the meetings with Thrasher and Jennings.

As his communications director, Cory Tilley, was explaining that Bush was meeting only with staffers in his office, Jennings arrived. About an hour later, as Tilley was telling reporters he was not aware that Thrasher was coming, the speaker himself walked into the foyer.

Moments after Tilley explained that no legislation was being discussed, Thrasher was asked what he thought would come up. "I guess education and tax cuts," he said.

Bush staffers appeared unfamiliar with the constitutional requirement that meetings between the governor and legislative leaders be open to the public. When informed of the Constitution, Tilley said he had not had a chance to learn everything.

"It is our first day in office," Tilley explained. "Cut us a little slack."

Bush and his lawyer, Carol Licko, pledged that his administration would be open and accessible.

"Not all meetings are subject to the public records act," Licko said.

Although Bush and his aides are busy preparing a budget to release in about a month, Licko said that would not be considered legislation.

"Any discussion was completely preliminary," Licko said. "There is no budget yet to discuss. He talked in terms of his policies and things he intends to implement over the next four years. But it was general, not specific."

Thrasher and Jennings said they think the governor will learn the laws and urged reporters to give the brand new governor a chance to learn the ropes.

"Yes we discussed other things than yesterday's cold weather," Jennings said. "But we certainly made no decisions. Let's give him a week to know what's happening."

Pointing to the meeting on his calendar, Thrasher said it was public as far as he knew. The speaker pledged an open door and said any meetings that occur in his office will be public.

Thrasher said Bush did not know reporters were seeking access to the meetings until he arrived in his office and told him about the crowd in his front office.

"I think he understands and got the message," Thrasher added. "I think it's more a problem of his staff getting organized. I don't think it will be a problem."

Bush told reporters he was so excited about getting to work, he did not consider whether the meetings would be open.

"I just got here," Bush said. "It wasn't even a thought."

The governor began his day with a bran muffin and 45 minutes on an exercise bike. His office showed one sign of change: Instead of the hunting motif favored by Gov. Lawton Chiles, the governor's smaller study was adorned with pictures of the Bush family and a montage of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"You all are going to write your stories," Bush said, "but I can tell you I had a great first day."

Times staff writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report.