State withholds surgeon general’s communications from first 2 weeks on the job

News 6 began requesting Dr. Joseph Ladapo’s emails, text messages in early October

FILE - Florida Surgeon Gen. Dr. Joseph A. Ladapo, left, speaks at a news conference with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Ladapo says the state will formally recommend against COVID-19 vaccinations for healthy children. Ladapo made the announcement at a roundtable event organized by DeSantis that featured a group of doctors who criticized coronavirus lockdowns and mandate policies. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – More than seven months after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Dr. Joseph Ladapo to serve as Florida’s surgeon general, the Florida Department of Health is withholding records of Ladapo’s communications during his first two weeks in the position, including possible email and text messages.

News 6 submitted a public records request with FDOH on October 5, 2021, seeking copies of all emails, text messages and other electronic or printed communications authored by Ladapo in his official capacity as surgeon general between that date and his appointment 14 days earlier on September 21.

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Seven months later, FDOH has not produced those government records, nor has the agency explained why the records are being withheld from public view.

FDOH’s communications office indicated in late February that the agency had compiled records in response to News 6′s request, but it did not specify what types of records FDOH had retrieved nor how many pages of documents were gathered.

“We checked with the records team and your request is with our lawyers for review and redaction,” an unidentified communications office staff member told News 6 by email on February 28.

Since that update more than two months ago, FDOH has not responded to seven emails from News 6 inquiring about the withheld records and requesting an appointment to view the documents in-person.

According to Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Manual, the “only delay” in producing public records “is the limited reasonable time allowed the custodian to retrieve the record and delete those portions of the records the custodian asserts are exempt”.

Florida law does not specify how quickly government officials must produce such public records, but state agencies are required to respond to such requests in good faith.

News 6 Morning Anchor Justin Warmoth hears from Investigative Reporter Mike DeForest about the full process of uncovering public records that were delayed so Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could review them first.

FDOH’s public records website states that the agency must respond to requests “within a reasonable timeframe.”

The FDOH website also informs citizens that, under Florida law, they can view public records in-person.

“Any person has the right to inspect and copy public information during regular business hours,” the FDOH website states. “It is recommended to contact the appropriate office prior to your arrival to ensure the records are readily available.”

News 6 submitted written requests to FDOH’s communications office on three separate occasions in April seeking an appointment to view Ladapo’s records at the agency’s Tallahassee headquarters or another location of FDOH’s choosing. FDOH did not respond to any of News 6′s attempts to schedule a viewing appointment.

Prior to the publication of this story, News 6 gave FDOH the opportunity to explain why the surgeon general’s communications have not been released or whether any factors, such a potentially large backlog of other public records requests, may be causing a reasonable delay in producing the documents.

The agency has not responded.

DeSantis appointed Ladapo in September to replace departing Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees.

Florida’s Senate confirmed Ladapo five months later on a party-line vote of 24 to 15, with Democrats saying the doctor was dangerously unqualified, while Republicans said he was a man who “looked at the facts,” as one senator put it.

FDOH withheld the surgeon general’s communications from public view during the same period that state senators were considering Ladapo’s confirmation.

A recent News 6 investigation revealed that the office of DeSantis has delayed the release of some public records compiled by state agencies to conduct a secondary review, a move criticized by advocates of Florida’s open government laws.

The governor’s spokesperson, Taryn Fenske, told News 6 in April that DeSantis’s office was not in possession of the surgeon general’s communications.

“(FDOH) is the custodian of these records, as we don’t have access to his emails,” said Fenske.  “I checked in with their team, and they will get back to you.”

Although FDOH’s communications team was copied on Fenske’s April 20 message to News 6, the state health agency has not yet produced Ladapo’s records or explained why the government documents have been withheld for seven months.


About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.