The state of Florida announced that they have agreed to pay $700,000 to settle seven lawsuits that allege Governor Rick Scott and several of his top aides circumvented the state’s public records laws by using private email accounts to hide their communications.
The entire settlement will be paid to Steven Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer who has been involved in a legal fight with Governor Scott and the Cabinet since 2012 over the state’s effort to expand a piece of property near the governor’s mansion known as “The Grove”.
The property expansion involved the state buying a piece of property that included Andrews’ law office.
Andrews fought the plan, stating that he had an agreement in 2011 to buy the land for his law office.
During the legal fight over the property issue, Andrews had requested a number of state public records where it was discovered that Governor Scott and some members of his staff were communicating through the use of Google Gmail accounts.
Andrews argued that Governor Scott and his staff were using private Google Gmail accounts to conduct state business and avoid Florida’s public records laws.
Last April, a judge in California ordered Google to produce email communications from the Gmail accounts that belonged to Governor Scott and former members of his staff.
Shortly after the email communications were turned over by Google, a trial date in the case was scheduled for June. According to court records, this is when lawyers for Governor Scott began settlement negotiations with Andrews.
The settlement agreeement was released on Friday August 7th, 2015.
The settlement will be paid with funds from existing budgets at four different state departments.
The majority of the money ( $445K ) will come from the Department of Environmental Protection. The governor’s office will pay $120K. The office of Florida’s attorney general will pay out $75K and the Department of State will pay the remaining $60K.
This case marks the first time in Florida history that a current governor and attorney general have been successfully sued under the sunshine provisions in Florida’s constitution for violating state public records laws.
This is believed to be one of the largest open records settlements in the state’s history.
The settlement also ends the property dispute in Andrews’ favor and stops the possibility of a court ruling on whether or not the governor and his staff broke state laws.
In addition, the settlement ends a related suit against Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Florida public records also reveal that the governor’s office spent almost $100,000 in legal fees to defend Governor Scott and his staff during the course of the lawsuit.
Scott and the Cabinet have a history of public records problems. In June, they agreed to pay $55,000 in legal costs to end a lawsuit alleging that they violated Florida’s Sunshine Law over the firing of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
These two open government cases are the first time that a current Florida governor has used taxpayer money to settle public records lawsuits filed against him.