TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a move criticized by advocates of Florida’s open government laws, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff intervened in a public records request related to a former appointee who is reportedly connected to a federal sex trafficking investigation, documents obtained by News 6 show.
The governor’s secondary “review” of state spending records delayed the release of those documents for more than two months, records confirm.
That delay may have violated Florida’s public records laws, according to some legal experts familiar with the matter.
News 6 submitted a public records request last year seeking spending reports from Halsey Beshears, the former head of Florida’s business licensing agency.
According to Politico, Beshears and Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz were named in a grand jury subpoena related to an ongoing federal sex trafficking investigation.
Beshears and Gaetz, who once served together in the Florida legislature, have not been charged with any crimes.
Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, or DBPR, compiled Beshears’ financial records within days of News 6 requesting them, newly uncovered emails confirm. Some records were even retrieved within hours.
Instead of immediately releasing the records, DBPR shared Beshears’ financial reports with DeSantis’s office for a secondary “review,” documents obtained by News 6 show, delaying their release by more than two months.
“Once an (agency’s records custodian) has a record, that custodian must produce the record right then. It doesn’t matter that the governor has an interest in it and wants to review it later,” said Pamela C. Marsh, the executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to protect the public’s constitutional right to open government. “We understand that this is happening more frequently, but not consistently, such that it appears to have an objective of hiding certain information in a potentially discriminatory or content-based way.”
DeSantis’ office claims that the governor has the authority to review public records compiled by subordinate state agencies if the governor “may have an equity” in the record “because the record includes communications with the Executive Office of the Governor, because the record concerns the Governor, or because there is reason to believe that the Governor may be asked about information in the record.”
“In accordance with the Governor’s duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, the Executive Office of the Governor may review the record to ensure the accuracy and correctness of the record production,” said Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ deputy press secretary.
But DeSantis’ stated reasons for intervening in the matter are not included among the “very limited circumstances” a state agency can delay the release of public records, according to information published by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
The Attorney General’s Office maintains Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Manual, a 360-page online guide that, according to Moody, “helps citizens navigate Florida’s public records laws and access government meetings.”
The manual is published in cooperation with the First Amendment Foundation.
According to page 168 of the Sunshine Manual, “the only delay” permitted in producing public records under Florida law “is the limited reasonable time allowed the custodian to retrieve the record and delete those portions of the record the custodian asserts are exempt”.
The Attorney General’s manual cites Tribune Co. v. Cannella, a 1984 Florida Supreme Court decision that found “no provision is made for anyone other than the custodian of records to withhold a record, and the only justification for withholding a record or a portion thereof is the custodian’s assertion of a statutory exemption.”
Florida statute defines a record custodian as “the elected or appointed state, county, or municipal officer charged with the responsibility of maintaining the office having public records, or his or her designee.”
Although Florida’s Public Record Act does not require government agencies to comply with public records requests within a specific time limit, the Sunshine Manual states than “an agency’s unjustified delay in producing public records constitutes an unlawful refusal to provide access to public records.”
Government officials who knowingly violate Florida’s public record law can be removed from office and charged with a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Unknowingly violating the law is a noncriminal infraction punishable by a maximum $500 fine.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions inquiring why it believes its practice of reviewing some documents before release complies with Florida’s public records law, which was first passed in 1909.
“Nothing in the law gives the Governor power to delay the production of records by exercising any claimed right of review. It’s a fiction to claim such a right exists,” said Michael Barfield, the director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability. “The law is clear that the only delay permitted is the time it takes the custodian to retrieve the records and determine if any information is exempt. Not a single case allows the Governor the opportunity to further review the custodian’s production of records.”
The First Amendment Foundation, citing Tribune Co. v. Cannella, said any policy creating an automatic delay in the release of public records is impermissible.
“It is clear under the law that an agency’s records custodian has a duty to provide records, regardless of who has ‘equity’ in the records,” Marsh said. “Any additional review must serve a ‘legally cognizable purpose, and any delay to allow such (additional review) is therefore inconsistent with the (Public Records) Act.’”
Moody’s office did not respond to questions from News 6 inquiring whether DeSantis could legally delay the release of public records while reviewing them for “accuracy and correctness,” as claimed by the governor’s office.
“We are not authorized to provide legal opinions or advice to private individuals,” said Kylie Mason, the Attorney General’s deputy communications director.
Mason cited a Florida law that allows only certain government officials, including the governor and the Cabinet, to seek a legal opinion from the Attorney General.
A searchable database of advisory legal opinions does not indicate that DeSantis has received written advice from the Attorney General’s Office on whether his office has the authority to delay the release of public records while conducting a review.
Patricia Gleason, a longtime employee of the Attorney General’s Office who serves as Moody’s Special Counsel for Open Government, authored a 1995 informal advisory legal opinion noting “the only delay” in producing records is the reasonable time needed to retrieve and redact the records.
Wording similar to Gleason’s legal opinion can be found in the 2022 edition of the Government in the Sunshine Manual.
DeSantis appointed Beshears as DBPR secretary in January 2019, calling him a “champion for deregulation.”
Beshears unexpectedly resigned from his position in January 2021, citing health issues.
Months after his resignation, published reports linked Beshears to a federal investigation.
According to Politico, Beshears traveled to the Bahamas with Gaetz in September 2018, just months before Beshears was named DBPR secretary. At the time, Beshears was serving in the Florida legislature.
That Bahamas trip has been scrutinized by federal investigators as part of its probe into possible sex trafficking, according to CBS News.
Neither Beshears nor Gaetz have been charged with any crimes.
Gaetz, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, recently told Fox News he does not expect to be prosecuted.
“This was an operation to destroy me,” said Gaetz, who noted that he has not been criminally charged more than a year after published reports first revealed the existence of the sex trafficking investigation.
“I have nothing to comment on the record because there is nothing to comment about,” Beshears wrote in an email to News 6. “This is not even a story, and it is frustrating to see your paper drag my name through the mud in order to smear the Governor.”
Beshears did not respond to a follow-up email from News 6 offering him the opportunity to dispute published reports about the grand jury subpoena.
There is no indication Beshears improperly used state money, according to documents later obtained by News 6. And there is no indication the former DBPR secretary was involved in the delayed release of those documents, which News 6 first requested months after Beshears resigned from office.
News 6 submitted a public records request with DBPR on April 15, 2021 seeking financial statements for credit card and any other spending accounts assigned to Beshears while he served as the agency’s secretary.
Such financial documents are considered public records under Florida law and must be made available to any citizen who requests to see them.
DBPR staff members compiled a portion of Beshears’ financial records within hours of receiving News 6′s request for them, recently released emails show.
“Just FYI, I have started on this. I have a report of travel already from FLAIR (Florida government’s accounting system), and Diana… is pulling a P-card (purchasing card) report,” DBPR Finance and Accounting Bureau Chief Sally Huggins wrote in an email to another DBPR employee less than six hours after News 6 requested the records. “Lynn said this wasn’t an urgent need to get done today or tomorrow – just need to respond probably next week.”
Two weeks after News 6 requested the financial records, the documents were “under review” with DPBR Chief of Staff Thomas Philpot, according to a log of media inquiries maintained by DBPR’s communications office.
On May 4, less than three weeks after News 6 requested Beshears’ financial records, it appears DBPR shared the documents with DeSantis’s office.
For the next two months, an internal DBPR report indicated the financial records were “with Kim for review.”
The notation referred to Kim Bane, an administrative assistant with the Executive Office of the Governor, according to a DBPR spokesperson.
“Kim was the point of contact for the legal review of public records,” DBPR Deputy Communications Director Patrick Fargason said.
A log maintained by DBPR’s communications office shows the agency routinely provided other types of public records to news organizations without forwarding the documents to the governor’s office for secondary review, including requests for realtor and contractor licenses. DBPR produced some records the same day journalists requested them, the log shows.
During the three-month period when Beshears’ financial records were being compiled and reviewed, only one other news organization’s records request was “with Kim for review”, according to the DBPR media log.
In that case, the Tallahassee Democrat requested a copy of DBPR’s coronavirus protocols and workplace social distancing policy. The records were provided to the news organization a little more than a month after they were first requested, the log indicates.
“It is not uncommon for (DBPR) to work closely with the Governor’s Office in matters relating to his authority and appointments,” Fargason said. “Coordinating records requests with EOG, or any other agency, for further legal review is at the agency’s discretion depending on the type of records involved and nature of the request.”
DBPR produced Beshears’ financial reports to News 6 on July 15, exactly three months after the documents were first requested and more than two months after the governor’s office began reviewing them.
The 61 pages of documents primarily detailed Beshears’ routine expenses for agency-related travel within Florida including receipts for airfare, hotels, rental cars and parking. The documents also included a three-page schedule for the 2019 Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association conference in Tampa.
“Sometimes we can deliver records requests in a shorter period of time, but sometimes our office needs more time to review a request,” said Griffin, DeSantis’ spokesman. “The quantity of text involved in a request is not always directly proportional to the time needed in the review process.”
The documents produced by DBPR contained minimal redactions, with 25 black boxes placed over credit card and other account numbers that are exempt from disclosure under Florida’s public records law.
Those redactions were made by DBPR’s Office of General Counsel, according to DBPR. There is no indication the governor’s office made additional redactions during the secondary review of the records.
The Florida Center for Government Accountability believes it is improper for a state agency to withhold public records while conducting what the organization describes as “political review.”
“The practice of the Governor’s Office reviewing record requests involving political allies violates the law because it delays access for an invalid reason,” Barfield said. “There’s no automatic delay because a request seeks records that may expose the Governor to ridicule or criticism.”
The First Amendment Foundation expressed concern that any Floridian who attempts to obtain state records could face an impermissible delay.
“At this point, a person requesting records has no idea when or if their original request, sent to a different agency, will be subsequently sent to the Governor’s Office and delayed – or why the records might be sent there for a second review,” Marsh said.