TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody commemorates “National Sunshine Week” by reminding Floridians about the state’s open meeting and public record laws, Moody has remained mum about Gov. Ron DeSantis delaying the release of some public records by weeks or months.
Hundreds of public records requested by citizens and journalists from state agencies such as the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have been forwarded to the governor’s office for “review,” documents recently uncovered by News 6 revealed.
Some of those records remained with DeSantis and his legal team for more than nine months before being returned to the originating state agencies, according to a log used by the governor’s staff.
“Whether its intentional or not, it has the obvious effect of unreasonably delaying the constitutional right of access to public records,” said Michael Barfield, the director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a watchdog organization that advocates for transparent government.
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Moody has positioned herself as a champion of Florida’s open government laws.
“The Attorney General’s Office has consistently sought to safeguard Florida’s pioneering Government-in-the-Sunshine laws,” Moody’s official government website states. “Our attorneys have worked, both in the courtroom and out, to halt public records violations.”
Nearly every year since being sworn in as Florida’s attorney general in 2019, Moody has issued news releases on her state website recognizing “National Sunshine Week,” an initiative launched by the News Leaders Association to promote open government.
“Open government laws are a vital tool in making sure citizens know how their tax dollars are being spent and how the people they elected to represent them are performing their duties,” Moody said in a 2019 news release.
“Our state’s public meetings and public records laws serve as a shining example of how transparency and accountability can help create a fair, responsive system of government,” proclaimed the attorney general one year later.
In recognition of “National Sunshine Week,” Moody traditionally releases updated versions of Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine manual, a 366-page guidebook outlining the state’s public record and open meetings laws.
The manual is published in partnership with the Florida First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to protect the public’s constitutional right to open government.
The 2023 edition of the Government-in-the-Sunshine manual appeared on Moody’s website late last week.
“As Attorney General, I remain committed to the principles of transparency embodied in these laws and the benefits they secure for our state,” Moody wrote in the manual.
So far Moody has declined to answer questions from News 6 about the governor’s practice of delaying the release of public records while reviewing them.
“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,” a 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.”
According to the 2023 edition of the Government-in-the-Sunshine manual, “the only delay in producing public records” under Florida’s Public Record 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.”
That passage from the attorney general’s manual is attributed to the 1984 Florida Supreme Court ruling in Tribune Co. v. Cannella, which also found that “a procedure that provides for an automatic delay in the production of records therefore is impermissible.”
Moody did not respond to questions from News 6 asking whether she endorsed that passage in her agency’s manual.
The attorney general also did not disclose whether she supports or rejects the position held by DeSantis that record custodians can legally delay the release of public records while the governor reviews them.
“As you know, the Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual compiles and organizes laws, judicial decisions and advisory opinions,” Moody’s communications director told News 6. “The citation from the court case you mentioned, as well as other court decisions regarding the release of public records are included in the 2023 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual.”
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