By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - The head of Florida's main open-government organization said Wednesday Governor Rick Scott should personally pay the $700,000 settlement costs of a public records lawsuit, rather than letting taxpayers pick up the tab.
Scott agreed to a state-paid settlement after Internet giant Google was ordered to turn over relevant documents in a dispute with a Tallahassee attorney who accused the governor's office of secretly using private emails for state business."He’s playing fast and loose with our Constitution and we’re paying the cost, both literally and figuratively," Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said of Scott.
Petersen noted that Scott, a wealthy former hospital executive, spent about $71 million of his own money getting elected.
Attorney Steven Andrews sued Scott and the state Cabinet after the state decided in 2012 to buy a stately old house where his office is located near the governor’s mansion. While defending his office contract Andrews discovered that the governor and his staff had set up a series of private email accounts in which they discussed official business.
He sued under the state’s public records law to see the emails about the real estate deal.
It was the governor’s second so-called "sunshine law" settlement in recent months. In June, the state agreed to pay $55,000 to St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner, some media organizations and open-government advocates who sued over secret communication in the firing of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey late last year.
That case cost more than $225,000 in legal fees, not counting costs for the governor’s office.
Petersen estimated the tab will easily exceed $1 million for the Andrews and Weidner cases. She said no other governor has been sued over the “sunshine” provisions of the Constitution or statutes going back more than 40 years.
Andrews said Scott got bad advice about the state’s laws when he and his staff secretly used a private server for emails involving state business.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Shutz noted that the settlement, signed Aug. 5, contained an agreement that all public records "have been produced in good faith" to Andrews.
"We settled and it was the right thing to do for the state," she added.
(Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh)