Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet agree to settle Sunshine Law case

Published June 24, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — With no acknowledgment of guilt and little discussion, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet agreed Tuesday to settle an open meetings lawsuit that will cost taxpayers more than $225,000 in legal fees.

By accepting the deal, Scott and the three elected members of the Cabinet agreed to pay $55,000 in attorney's fees to those who brought the lawsuit and institute reforms to the Cabinet meeting procedures — something they say they have already done in large part. Records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald show lawyers for the three members of the Cabinet were paid at least $173,098 to defend against the open records lawsuit. Scott's office has not responded to requests about his costs.

The settlement is the result of a lawsuit brought by St. Petersburg lawyer Matthew Weidner and several media organizations, including the Times and Herald, who accused Scott and the Cabinet of violating the state's open meeting laws when they allowed staff to use back channels to oust former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey with no public discussion or vote.

During the Cabinet meeting Tuesday, neither Scott nor the three members of the Cabinet discussed details of the settlement. And after the Cabinet meeting, Scott had little more to add.

"I think it was the right thing for our state," Scott said.

Under terms of the settlement, senior staff for the Cabinet and governor have to undergo additional Sunshine Law training, items requested to be added to the Cabinet's agenda have to be made in writing or be raised in an open meeting, and meetings of Cabinet aides must be recorded and broadcast over the Internet. Also, the Cabinet must adopt a policy requiring that the governor, Cabinet members and identified senior staff "promptly forward" public records sent or received through private emails to a state government account.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he was pleased with the agreement and that it builds on reforms the Cabinet had already been making.

Also Tuesday, the Cabinet agreed that only acting FDLE commissioner Richard Swearingen will be publicly interviewed as part of the effort to replace Bailey. Swearingen, one of 64 people to apply for the position, will be interviewed Aug. 5, at the next Cabinet meeting. Putnam said his office had interviewed several of the applicants and felt comfortable with interviewing only him.

Scott appointed Swearingen to the post in December, but the Senate did not confirm the appointment before the regular session ended in April. That forced Scott to reappoint Swearingen last month, but new Cabinet rules require a nationwide search for candidates and interviews with other candidates.

"My goal is to make sure that it's all transparent," Scott said about the interview process.