News 6's investigation into the University of Central Florida's refusal to release the contracts of its football coaches has delivered a surprising compromise.
UCF coach George O'Leary and his staff will be asked to voluntarily make their contracts public following the upcoming contest with the University of Houston this weekend.
Under a new policy, all future coaching hires must agree to a stipulation that their contracts must be made public.
The announcement comes less than 24 hours after News 6 asked O'Leary if there was something in his contract he didn't want the public to see after UCF repeatedly denied requests for the contract to be released to News 6.
During his weekly media day game review on Monday, the coach told News 6 investigator Mike Holfeld he had nothing to hide, and that making contracts public was a university decision not his.
Tuesday evening that all changed.
UCF has issued a compromise that will give the coaching staff the option to make their contracts public. News 6 suggested the compromise to UCF in response to UCF's denial of News 6's Tuesday public records request for coordinator Brent Key's contract.
In an email to News 6, UCF said it would avoid "breaking the law" by asking the coaches to "voluntarily" release their contracts.
But there are no guarantees any of the contracts will be made public.
UCF only promises to provide News 6 with any contracts of those "who agree to such a release."
But the university also made a dramatic change in policy for future sports contracts writing:
"Moving forward, when new coaches are hired in any sport, we will include in their contracts a stipulation that they agree to waive the confidentiality of the contract, meaning we would be permitted to release it."
Now this sudden compromise allows an option that was always there but never offered until Tuesday. But what if O'Leary and his staff refuse to release the contracts to the public?
Tampa attorney Rachel Fugate of Thomas and LoCicero sued Florida State and the NCAA over hiding public records in a cheating scandal and won. She called UCF's refusal to release the contracts on its own risky.
"I think it is a mistake for UCF to be doing this," Fugate said of UCF's initial decision to withhold the contracts. "A lot of times with public agencies they're going to push the line as far as they can until someone steps in and tells them they can't."
UCF argues that since the Athletics Department is "privatized" as a Direct Support Organization, or DSO, it is forbidden by the Legislature from making the sports contracts available due to a public records exemption.
UCF, however, argued during the past wrongful death litigation of Ereck Plancher that it had the power to destroy its DSO and have the university run the athletics department again. Such a move would appear to eliminate the issue of whether the exemption truly prevents UCF from releasing contracts against the will of the current coaching staff.
If UCF were sued over the exemption, Fugate says it could have a wide impact.
"I think it is a big risk and not just for UCF," Fugate said. "If you're going to put the exemption on the line, that could have ramifications for all universities."
Not all Florida universities have a DSO running the athletic departments, however, all state universities have a DSO running their foundations. The foundations are able to use the DSO exemption to protect the identity of donors from the public.
Fugate does not believe the DSO statute was ever intended "to allow a university to transfer core functions to a direct support organization and avoid public records requirements."
Fugate added: "The exemption is a little broadly written, but if you look at the purpose of a DSO, that is limited, which in turns limits the exemption."
The other risk Fugate says UCF runs by refusing to release the contracts is causing the public to get behind a bill filed for the 2016 legislative session that would eliminate the exemption in its entirety – even for donors.
Florida House Bill 4005 was filed by state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a democrat from Tallahassee.
Republicans have also questioned UCF's use of the DSO exemption to hide football contracts.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a public records attorney whose districts sits outside of Fort Walton Beach, suggested UCF would have an uphill battle defending it in court.
"I sure wouldn't want to defend the constitutionality of such an exemption to the Public Records Act," Gaetz said.
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