DeSantis ‘review’ of public records can add months of delays, newly uncovered log reveals

State agencies sent hundreds of records to governor’s legal team for review before release, documents show

Hundreds of public records from state agencies have been sent to DeSantis’s office for "review," documents uncovered by News 6 show. (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ practice of “reviewing” public records from state agencies can delay the release of those records to citizens and journalists by weeks or months, documents obtained by News 6 reveal.

The Florida Department of Corrections, the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are among several state agencies that have forwarded hundreds of requested public records to the governor’s office for review, according to a newly uncovered log used by DeSantis’ staff.

Some records remained at the governor’s office for more than nine months before being returned to the originating state agencies, the log shows.

Florida’s constitution grants anyone the legal right to inspect most public records that are created or received in connection with official government business.

State law does not require government agencies to produce public records within a specific time limit. However, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the “only delay” permitted in producing public records is the time it takes for a record custodian to retrieve the record and delete any information exempt from release.

Some state agencies receive hundreds of public records requests each week, according to the governor’s office.

Record custodians employed by those state agencies typically release requested public records directly to citizens after they are compiled and redacted, sometimes within days or weeks, although certain requests take longer.

In most cases, state agencies do not seek a secondary review from the governor’s office prior to distributing public records, documents indicate.

But more than 280 batches of public records were sent to DeSantis’ office by various state agencies in 2021, according to a handwritten log used by the governor’s legal team.

Dozens of those records were returned to the originating agencies more than two months after receiving them, the log shows, while a few records remained in the possession of the governor’s lawyers for nine months or more.

At least 17 batches of public records received by the governor’s office throughout 2021 were returned to state agencies in bulk during the shorter, end-of-the-year holiday weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the log indicates, including some that were first received by the governor’s office more than nine months earlier.

“In my view, this explains why there’s a delay in getting access to public records from state agencies and [the Executive Office of Governor],” said Michael Barfield, the director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a watchdog organization that advocates for transparent government.  “If EOG is busy reviewing requests made to state agencies, it slows down the entire process, including its duty to timely respond to requests made directly to EOG.”

The Florida First Amendment Foundation, another nonprofit that aims to protect the public’s constitutional right to open government, has said any policy creating an automatic delay in the release of public records is impermissible under Florida law.

A large percentage of public records forwarded to DeSantis’ legal team by outside state agencies was reportedly returned to those agencies the same day or the same week the records were received, the log shows.

However, in at least one of those instances, the governor’s staff was in possession of public records from an outside agency two months earlier than what was noted on the handwritten log, documents obtained by News 6 show.

The governor’s office did not respond to any questions about the newly uncovered log.

A DeSantis spokesperson previously confirmed the governor’s office conducted a “review” of certain public records originally requested from state agencies.

“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,” the DeSantis spokesperson told News 6 last year.

The governor’s office claims DeSantis 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.”

Representatives from the Florida Department of Corrections, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Department of Management Services, the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of State would not explain what criteria is used to determine which public records requests are submitted to the governor’s office for review.

Those six state agencies were responsible for most records sent to DeSantis’s office in 2021, according to the log obtained by News 6.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who proclaims that her office “has consistently sought to safeguard Florida’s pioneering Government-in-the-Sunshine laws,” did not respond to a request for comment about the log maintained by the governor’s office.

Florida’s Attorney General, in cooperation with the First Amendment Foundation, publishes the Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Manual, a 360-page online guide that helps citizens navigate Florida’s public record laws and access government meetings.

Moody’s office has previously declined to answer questions from News 6 inquiring whether DeSantis could legally delay the release of public records while reviewing them.

“We are not authorized to provide legal opinions or advice to private individuals,” the attorney general’s spokesperson told News 6 last year.

News 6 obtains log documenting when EOG lawyers receive, return public records from state agencies

News 6 published a story last year revealing that DeSantis occasionally delayed the release of public records requested by citizens from state agencies so his office could conduct a secondary review of those records. 

Following the publication of that April 2022 report, News 6 filed a public records request with the governor’s office seeking copies of any log or similar document used by EOG staff to track incoming public record requests submitted by subordinate state agencies for review by the governor.

DeSantis’ office failed to produce any records in response to News 6′s request for 10 months, citing “staffing changes” and being “inundated with large, complex public records requests.”

An attorney representing News 6 sent a letter to the governor’s office on February 9 asking that the records be provided immediately to avoid the need for litigation.

Less than four days later, DeSantis’ office produced a 10-page log it said was responsive to News 6′s public records request.

A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to questions inquiring whether the letter from News 6′s attorney played a role in the log being released on that specific day, more than 10 months after it was first requested.

The document, titled “Papers Routed through EOG Legal,” includes the name of the state agency that sent records to the EOG, the date those records were received by the governor’s legal team and the date the records were returned.

The log also includes the names of the citizens and organizations that originally requested the public records.

A vast majority of those requestors were journalists and news organizations including WKMG-TV News 6, WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, CNN, the Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Tampa Bay Times, The Associated Press, Politico and the New York Times.

Under a column labeled “attorney,” the log lists first names, including Ray, Josh and Maureen.

The governor’s office declined to identify those attorneys’ last names, nor would it confirm whether the log referred to EOG Deputy General Counsel Ray Treadwell, former EOG Deputy General Counsel Joshua Pratt or governor’s attorney Maureen Furino.

The log does not describe the specific type of public records that were reviewed, nor the volume of materials involved. The governor’s office has previously said the quantity of text is not always proportional to the time needed in the review process.

DeSantis’ legal team received 318 batches of records from outside agencies over a period of 15 months beginning in January 2021, the log shows, an average of one per business day.

More than 60 of those record batches were submitted by FDOC, with another 47 originating from FDLE, 41 from DMS, 30 from FDOH, 29 from DCF, and 19 from DOS.

Spokespeople for those five state agencies did not respond to questions from News 6 inquiring what criteria their agencies use in determining which public records were sent to the governor’s office for review.

None of those agencies nor DeSantis’ office would disclose whether exempt and confidential information contained within the public records was redacted by the agencies’ record custodians prior to the records being sent to the governor’s office for review.

According to the 1984 Florida Supreme Court ruling in Tribune Co. vs. Cannella, “the only delay permitted by the [Public Records] Act is the limited reasonable time allowed the custodian to retrieve the record and delete those portions of the record the custodian asserts are exempt.”

While most of the records received by the governor’s office from outside state agencies in 2021 were returned to those agencies within days, at least 38 remained with EOG staff for two months or longer.

At least five batches of public records originally requested from the Department of Corrections by a Miami Herald reporter were with the governor’s legal team for more than five months, the log shows.

The Palm Beach Post requested records from the Florida Department of Health that were in the EOG’s possession for more than eight months, according to the log.

Public records originating from DCF that were requested by Tampa television station WTSP-TV were returned to the agency 293 days after the governor’s legal team received them, the log shows.

That WTSP-TV public records request was associated with an EOG attorney named Maureen, according to the log.

Maureen was associated with 52 public record reviews in 2021, the log indicates.

Four of those were returned to state agencies on the Monday before Thanksgiving, while another 11 were returned three days before Christmas and two were returned the first business day after Christmas.

Log shows when batches of records associated with "Maureen" were returned

A DeSantis spokesperson did not respond to questions inquiring whether EOG staff intentionally waited until the end-of-the-year holiday period to review and return those records, one of which it had received more than six months earlier and two that were received more than nine months prior.

Another EOG attorney identified as Ray was associated with 68 public record reviews in 2021, the log shows.

Over a 57-day period between late September and late November, the log shows no public records requests associated with Ray were returned to any state agency.  During that same two-month period, 11 new batches of public records associated with Ray were received by the EOG.

On February 25, 2022, a batch of 12 public records associated with Ray were returned to the Department of Corrections, the log shows, including one that had been received by the EOG four months earlier.

Log shows when batches of records associated with "Ray" were returned.

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to questions inquiring whether EOG staff may wait days or weeks before reviewing batches of public records and then return those batches of records to state agencies in bulk.

Nearly 75% of the public records received by outside state agencies were returned to those agencies within 30 days, the log shows, with about one-third of all records returned within 24 hours of being received by the EOG legal team.

However, the EOG log may not show the entire time a state agency’s public records were in the governor’s possession for review.

In April 2021, News 6 requested routine travel and expense reports from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, or DBPR.

Internal DPBR emails confirm that some of those expense reports were compiled by the agency’s staff within hours of News 6 requesting them. 

The expense reports requested by News 6 were sent to the governor’s office “for review” by May 4, according to a report maintained by DBPR’s communications office.

But the log indicates the governor’s legal team did not receive the DBPR reports until July 9, more than two months later.

DeSantis’ office has not explained that discrepancy.

Just two days before the DBPR records were received by the governor’s legal team, News 6 published a story about how the state was withholding the expense reports from public release. 

The governor’s legal team returned the public records to DBPR on July 14, according to the log, one day before DBPR released the expense reports to News 6.

Florida Statutes Chapter 119, which dictates the state government’s legal duties to make public records available for inspection, does not authorize the governor to conduct secondary reviews of public records before they are released to the requestor, according to the Florida Center for Government Accountability.

“Adding another layer of review to an agency’s Chapter 119 process necessarily delays access to public records,” said Barfield.  “Whether it’s intentional or not, it has the obvious effect of unreasonably delaying the constitutional right of access to public records.”

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.