TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Here in the Sunshine State, citizens are blessed with open government laws aimed at promoting transparency by allowing anyone to view public records (with a growing number of exemptions).
After all, those government records belong to the people.
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The office of Florida’s Attorney General, in conjunction with the First Amendment Foundation, publishes Florida’s Government in the Sunshine manual. The guidebook outlines citizens’ rights to obtain public records and attend public meetings. I highly recommend taking a peek.
Recently I discovered that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is delaying the release of certain public records.
Documents obtained by News 6 show DeSantis’ staff intervened in a public records request related to Halsey Beshears, the former head of Florida’s business licensing agency, who is reportedly connected to a federal sex trafficking investigation.
Some legal experts believe such delays may violate state law.
As an investigative reporter, I spend a lot of time submitting public record requests to government agencies.
In recent years, I’ve also spent a lot of time doggedly following up with many agencies to ensure I receive the records to which I’m legally entitled.
That was the case after I submitted a public records request in April 2021 with Florida’s business licensing agency, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, or DBPR.
Earlier that week, Politico had published a news story linking former DBPR secretary Halsey Beshears to an ongoing federal sex trafficking investigation that reportedly also involved Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg. Neither Beshears nor Gaetz have been charged with any crimes. Greenberg has pleaded guilty to multiple offenses.
I had no reason to suspect Beshears had improperly spent taxpayer money while in office. Instead, I wanted to know if he had submitted any expense reports to the agency that might document his travels or spending activity, particularly if it happened in the Central Florida region I primarily cover.
Many public records I obtain from government agencies never result in the publication of a news story.
Perhaps that’s because Florida’s public records laws promote government transparency and allow “sunshine” to act as a disinfectant.
On April 15, 2021, I submitted a public records request to DBPR seeking Beshears’ expense reports and other spending account records during a portion of the time he served as the agency’s secretary.
Under Florida’s public records law, there is no specific time limit when an agency must produce a public record. The only requirement is that the agency make a good faith attempt to fulfill the request without an unjustified delay.
Fortunately, I’ve always had positive experiences requesting public records from DBPR.
In the past, DBPR has quickly provided me with contractor complaints, pool builder licenses and even racing greyhound injury reports when that industry was still legal in Florida. DBPR occasionally provided those records on the very same day I asked for them, sometimes within hours.
That’s why it seemed unusual to me when DBPR had not yet produced Beshears’ financial records one month after I had requested them.
Press secretaries or public information officers for state agencies are under no legal obligation to answer a reporter’s questions. But most usually do, if they can, particularly if it involves educating a reporter on the agency’s procedures.
So it was puzzling to me when DBPR’s press office did not respond to my multiple emails checking on the status of Beshears’ financial records.
My gut told me this records request was being handled differently than my prior ones.
Under Florida law, citizens have a right to inspect public records in-person without obtaining copies. The same law allows the agency to collect a reasonable fee to supervise citizens while they review the documents.
In late May, I formally requested an appointment to view Beshears’ financial records in DBPR’s Tallahassee office.
Admittedly, I was not looking forward to the eight-hour roundtrip drive from Orlando. But the law is clear that agencies must allow the public to physically view government records, either in the agency’s office or another designated location.
And I was willing to pay DBPR to supervise me.
But DBPR did not respond.
So I asked again for an appointment.
I asked a third time.
This was a huge problem and an enormous red flag.
Florida courts have ruled that citizens have the right to inspect records in-person at any reasonable time. And now it appeared DBPR was thwarting my attempts to exercise that right under Florida law.
While litigation was certainly an option at that point, lawsuits can be time-consuming and potentially expensive if you lose.
Before embarking on that route, News 6 published a news story about DBPR withholding public records. Prior to publication, we gave DBPR an opportunity to provide a response. We did not receive one.
One week later, DBPR produced Beshears’ financial records.
That was July 15, exactly three months after I first requested them.
Based on the amount of time it took for the records to be produced, I suspected there would potentially be hundreds of pages of documents.
Instead, there were just 61 pages. It took me only a few minutes to glance over all of them. There were a few dense spreadsheets with financial figures. But most of the documents were very light reading that primarily outlined Beshears’ agency-related travel within the state.
There was a rental car receipt. Some airline receipts. A few hotel invoices detailing room charges. Some Florida highway maps documenting the mileage Beshears drove. A three-page schedule for a Tampa conference. And a campus map of Orlando’s Valencia College where Beshears attended another meeting.
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Florida’s public records law requires agencies to redact certain exempt information, such as social security and credit card numbers. I counted 25 black boxes covering various account numbers.
Based on my 25 years of experience looking through public records, it was hard to believe Beshears’ documents required DBPR’s legal team to conduct a time-consuming review to redact exempt information before releasing them.
It didn’t make sense to me why the state needed three months to produce these documents.
I wanted to figure out why.
And I had a theory.
During the administration of former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, I heard unconfirmed allegations that some “high profile” public record requests were being routed to the governor’s office for review before being released.
After two convicted murderers escaped from prison using forged release documents in 2013, it took the Florida Department of Corrections more than a year to produce certain records I sought. At the time, I wondered if Scott’s office might have played a role in the lengthy production time, but I had no proof of it.
Similar allegations surfaced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when journalists experienced long waits obtaining records from the Florida Department of Health under DeSantis.
At the time of this publication, I’ve been waiting more than six months for records from one state agency and three months for records from another agency. Both involve matters that could be classified as “high profile.”
If the records I’m seeking contain newsworthy information for the public, will it still be relevant when I finally receive the records?
Questions like that are the reason open government advocates push for the prompt release of public records. “News delayed is news denied,” the saying goes.
I wanted to know if Beshears’ records were withheld from me so DeSantis could look at them first. Since he’s a very busy guy, such a review might take a while.
So last July, I submitted a request with the Executive Office of Governor, or EOG, seeking all records in its possession “related” to my April 2021 request to DBPR for Beshears’ records.
Four months later, DeSantis’ office responded.
“A search of the Executive Office of the Governor’s files produced no documents responsive to your request,” it said.
It seemed my theory about the governor reviewing Beshears’ financial reports was totally wrong. DeSantis’s office claimed to have no records related to my DBPR request.
It was time to give up. This matter was sucking up way too much of my time. I needed to let it go and move on.
But why in the world did it take DPBR three months to produce those simple reports?
Then, I remembered it is free to send public record requests and they only take a few minutes to write.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I fired off another request to DBPR.
Seasoned investigative reporters have taught me the most effective public record requests seek very specific information.
This time I asked for emails in DBPR’s possession that contained the word “Beshears,” my last name, or my TV station’s call letters.
I speculated that one of those three keywords might have been attached to my original records request as an identifier, making it easier to track its journey through DBPR. Unlike some public record requests, DBPR never assigned it a formal tracking number.
About three months later, in early March, DBPR turned over a treasure trove of documents.
Among the most significant was an email message written by an employee of DBPR’s Finance and Accounting department.
The email stated the employee had already compiled some of Beshears’ travel records and a co-worker was pulling his purchasing card report. It noted that they needed to respond “probably next week.”
The email was written on April 15, 2021, at 4:53 p.m. That was less than six hours after I first requested Beshears’ financial records.
DBPR also produced three months of daily “media reports,” which appear to be logs maintained by the press office documenting inquiries from news organizations like mine.
According to the log, my request for Beshears’ records was “routed to Finance & Accounting” on the same day I submitted it.
About two weeks later, on April 30, 2021, those records were placed “under review” with DBPR’s Chief of Staff. They remained with him for about two business days.
The media logs confirm DBPR produced many other public records, like licensing documents, on the same day journalists requested them.
In one other case where DBPR’s chief of staff reviewed a public record, the log shows the document was released to the journalist two days later.
But Beshears’ records would make another stop before I could get them.
On May 5, 2021, the log shows Beshears’ records were placed “with Kim for review.”
The records remained “with Kim” for more than two months, until at least July 7, 2021.
According to the log, the records were “with Kim” at the same time DBPR was ignoring my repeated attempts to schedule an in-person appointment to view the records.
Who is Kim? And why did she have Beshears’ records?
Those answers would remain elusive a bit longer.
In early March, I sent an email to DBPR’s press office asking for Kim’s last name and official job title.
DBPR’s press office did not answer.
I asked again, five days later.
DBPR’s press office wrote back the following day but noticeably avoided addressing my specific questions about Kim’s last name and title.
I asked a third time. But I figured that was probably pointless.
As mentioned earlier, government press staff are under no legal obligation to answer a reporter’s questions. But agencies are absolutely required by Florida law to produce public records.
I needed to find a public record that contained Kim’s name and title.
Perhaps she sent an email with that information in the signature area?
I submitted yet another public records request to DBPR, this time seeking the most recent email in its possession written by “Kim.”
If “Kim” worked within the agency, I wanted the last email she sent. If she worked outside DBPR, I wanted the most recent email the agency received from her.
To prevent DBPR from claiming they needed more information from me about “Kim” to find the email, I cited portions of that handy Florida Government in the Sunshine manual outlining the agency’s duty to seek help from its employees while searching for records.
It appears my strategy may have worked.
Twelve days after I first asked, DBPR’s press office provided me with Kim’s full name and her title.
It turns out Kim is an administrative assistant who works for the Executive Office of the Governor.
After months of persistence, I finally had a paper trail showing DBPR compiled Beshears’ financial records in a matter of days and then forwarded them to the governor’s office, where they remained for more than two months.
Why did the governor’s office get involved in a public records request submitted with another agency? What criteria is used in deciding what records the governor must review? Why did it take the governor’s office more than two months to review Beshears’ records?
I submitted those questions and more to the governor’s office on March 22.
I received no response.
I re-submitted the questions on March 23.
Still no response.
I sent them again on March 24.
By now our news organization was planning to publish a story about the governor’s involvement in the delayed records.
Although I suspected the administrative assistant would not respond, I sent an email to Kim outlining our findings and giving her an opportunity to comment. I also included the same questions I had sent the governor’s press office.
The following day I informed her of our publication deadline.
I never heard from Kim.
But on March 30, more than a week after I first contacted them, the governor’s press office finally responded.
In a statement, the governor’s deputy press secretary said it was “entirely appropriate” for the governor to review public records requests submitted to subordinate agencies “to ensure the accuracy and correctness” of those records.
Such a review might occur “because the record concerns the Governor, or because there is reason to believe that the Governor may be asked about information in the record,” he said.
As far as I know, that statement may be the very first time the governor has publicly acknowledged intervening in some public records requests.
There’s no question the governor has the right to review public records. After all, Florida law grants that right to every citizen.
But can the governor delay the release of records while he conducts a review?
Several advocates of open government laws believe such a delay violates a 1984 Florida Supreme Court ruling that found the “only” permissible delay is the time it takes for an agency to retrieve and redact a record.
“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, an 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.”
The Florida Center for Government Accountability, another watchdog group, agrees.
“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 center’s director of public access. “There’s no automatic delay because a request seeks records that may expose the Governor to ridicule or criticism.”