Florida Public Officials Face Criminal Charges For Dodging Public Records Laws

from the harbinger-or-one-off? dept

Some surprising news out of Florida: actual public officials being held accountable for public records law violations. We're used to hearing about officials finding new and creative ways to dodge public records requests. We're also used to hearing about officials using tried-and-true methods to avoid turning over records, like demanding astronomical fees or abusing exemptions.

In this case, several years of blowing off requests for emails has ended in indictments for two Florida officials.

In a move that should send a chill down the spines of thousands of elected officials in Florida, former Martin County Commissioner Anne Scott, a retired judge originally from Chicago, and current Commissioner Ed Fielding were booked Tuesday night into the county jail after being indicted in a public records scandal that already cost taxpayers upward of $25 million.

The charges aren't much -- a misdemeanor count worth up to a year in jail -- but they're a start. (Another involved government employee -- sitting commissioner Amber Heard -- faces a civil charge and a fine of $500.) Unfortunately, the charges look minuscule compared to the amount taxpayers will have to come up with to settle lawsuits stemming from the actions of these politicians.

Scott, Fielding and Heard, who is in her fourth term on the County Commission, are accused of failing to surrender emails to developers investigating why the commission suddenly started voting against them.

The emails were requested by Lake Point, a mining company on the banks of Lake Okeechobee. The company was out to prove that commissioners were illegally communicating and discussing public business in private and conspiring with members of the public against the company’s interests.

It took several years for the trio to produce their emails. When she was asked to show emails from her private Yahoo account, Heard claimed it had been hacked. In a civil lawsuit, several witnesses testified Heard was lying.

So far, the county has lost one civil lawsuit over the public records and was ordered to pay $500,000 of Lake Point’s legal bill.

That's only the start of the taxpayer pain. Several years of legal costs have already been footed by residents as these government officials argued on behalf of themselves and against the public's interest. The Miami Herald reports a massive payout may be on the horizon. A second lawsuit filed by the mining company alleging breach of contract is about to be settled, with the estimated payout being $25 million.

In the end, it's not a win for the public in terms of dollar amount, but it is at least a sign the government will do something about its own misbehaving employees… provided the collateral damage becomes too big to ignore. It would be nice to see something more proactive but given the number of things governments routinely let slide, we'll chalk this up as a small-w win.


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  • icon
    ralph_the_bus_driver (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 1:51pm

    Like the arrest of Micheal Flynn, its a start.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:16pm

      Re: Hillary Clinton

      A much more fitting example would be Hillary Clinton, who upon receiving a subpoena for her emails, responded with a similar "fuck you" that went something like this:

      "Too late, we just deleted all those emails yesterday and wiped the hard drives, so go fuck yourselves!"

      So the obvious lesson here is when it comes to refusing a email subpoena and instead destroying the evidence, some politicians go to jail while others get off scott free.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ralph_the_bus_driver (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:28pm

        Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

        Troll harder moron. Clinton turned over her emails when asked.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Roger Strong (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:30pm

        Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

        Ah, Republican mythology.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 3:40pm

          Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

          I suppose then that the story about the Bush admininstration conducting official US government business through a private email server located in the Republican National Committee -- whose emails also ended up in the Memory Hole, by the way -- should we call that "Democratic Mythology"?

          Or do you partisans at least open your eyes to one half of the story?

          Government corruption and skullduggery is not just limited to one political party. The sad fact is that despite government document retention laws and regulations, both Republican and Democratic administrations have flagrantly violated both the spirit and sometimes the letter of the law, by devising all kinds of ways to hide government emails from both public scrutiny as well as law enforcement officials.

          These unlucky Florida officials being the rare exception, the vast majority of the time they get away with it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Roger Strong (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 5:13pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

            Spare us YOUR partisan attitude.

            Yes, Clinton was no different than the previous two Republican Secretaries of State and many other prominent Republicans using their own email servers. The Bush II White House on the other hand wasn't allowed to use private email servers.

            AC's "we just deleted all those emails yesterday and wiped the hard drives" claim is pure Republican mythology. Pointing this out isn't being partisan. It's being honest.

            To be clear: It wasn't just some Anonymous Coward making the claim - you had President Trump and other Republican White House officials chanting "lock her up" over it.

            You never saw any equivalent over Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice's private servers. Or Bush II, Cheney, Rove and the rest at the White House. Or 2016 Republican candidates Jeb!, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal each with their own email scandals. Nor Mitt Romney.

            Heck, even after all the Trump team "lock her up" chanting, they immediately started using private email servers for government business too.

            YOU are being partisan, with your false equivalencies.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 15 Dec 2017 @ 4:30am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

              If you are going to trot out partisan whataboutisms, use claims that aren't total lies. We never saw any fuss over Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice's private email servers because they did not have any.

              Rice did not regularly use email. Powell's term predated both the Department of State's policy to use its email servers for all official business, and the existence of reliable email servers in the Department.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Jim, 15 Dec 2017 @ 4:48am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

                Hill turned over the hard drives that contained copies of the emails to Congress, and the FBI, as per the archivist requirements of government rules. The same rules predate all the bushes, going back prior to Nixon, so, now I read of apps, on their phones, that delete messages after they are read, illegal.
                Makes me think, what are they hidding? The truth?

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Roger Strong (profile), 15 Dec 2017 @ 11:56am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

                So Hillary used her own server - which only she and her staff had control over.

                Colin Powell used an AOL account. Who knows how many AOL admins and support staff in how many countries had access. Is that supposed to be better? A public server is more secure than a private one?

                Rice got classified information in her private account too. The argument for her is that she didn't do it as much.

                We never saw any fuss over Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice's private email servers because they did not have any.

                They were using private (AOL) servers. LESS secure than private servers under their own control. Bush/Cheney/Rove/Jeb!/etc. used private servers too.

                It wasn't a fuss because IOKIYAR. "It's OK If You're A Republican."

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 18 Dec 2017 @ 11:38am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

                  Hillary's server had piss poor security. In fact, I believe it was hacked into. Then she deleted thousands of emails on it that SHE SAID were not government related. Ya right!!! The simple fact was there were Classified emails on it that should have never been there in the first place.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • icon
                    Roger Strong (profile), 21 Dec 2017 @ 8:25am

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Hillary Clinton

                    Hillary's server had piss poor security.

                    Citation....?

                    While you're at it, find a citation that the Bush II White House's off-site private server was any more secure. Or that Colin Powell's or Condoleezza Rice's private accounts were more secure. AOL, Yahoo and the others don't have a great track record - and that's not counting the unknown number of people around the world who get admin access intentionally.

                    In fact, I believe it was hacked into.

                    In fact, there's no evidence of this. It's simply what you want to believe.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 1:59pm

    mining industry

    One lesson to be learned here is that local government officials need to be very careful when opposing the interests of the mining industry -- a force that's well known for playing political hardball.

    While many of us may be glad to see corrupt government officials going to jail, the unfortunate reality is that such things generally only happen after someone gets on the wrong side of the power structure and therefore needs to be given a public spanking.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      An Onymous Coward (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:09pm

      Re: mining industry

      The first case, for example, cost the plaintiff $500k to litigate. Effectively only large corps have that kind of money. In other words, don't send in a bunch of FOIA requests hoping for a big court payout later on.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:24pm

      Re: mining industry

      Yeah, you are supposed to conspire with industry, particularly with major-cost-externalizing, heavy polluting industry, not members of the public.

      Conspiring with members of the public is probably the new term for unpaid lobbying, aka, bringing the concerns of the electorate to public officials, but that doesn't change the fact that said officials shouldn't be playing games with public records.

      Of course, let's see the documents (lol) that show why things went in favor of Lake Point for so long in the first place.

      Let's see if anyone but a corporate power ever gets results on this or anything else for that matter.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        BernardoVerda (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 5:27pm

        Re: Re: mining industry

        Came here to say pretty much exactly that.

        It's ironic, what particular sorts of cases actually result in politicians and officials "being held accountable".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:12pm

    microscopic win

    "we'll chalk this up as a small-w win."


    ...more like a microscopic win.

    These politicians were merely indicted not convicted and are unlikely to be even modestly punished. Plus, justice delayed is justice denied.

    Other crooked politicians can easily see that the odds of suffering ANY serious consequences for their misdeeds is extremely low. Cops figured this out long ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ralph_the_bus_driver (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 2:32pm

      Re: microscopic win

      I would assume that if a court finds them personally guilty they could be banned from holding office. I don't know Florida law, but most States do allow that when a politician has been found guilty of corrupt practices.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        stderric (profile), 14 Dec 2017 @ 4:05pm

        Re: Re: microscopic win

        Banned? That's weird. Here in Illinois it's how a Mayor becomes a Governor. It goes full circle most of the time, though, and is how a Governor becomes an Inmate.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 4:18pm

        Re: Re: microscopic win

        I don't know about most states, but that's certainly not the case in Washington, D.C. where Marion Barry went from the Mayor's office to federal prison and then back to the Mayor's office. A somewhat different kind of "revolving door" at the nation's capitol.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Tanner Andrews (profile), 15 Dec 2017 @ 11:19pm

        Re: Re: microscopic win

        I would assume that if a court finds them personally guilty they could be banned from holding office.

        I would not assume that. Upon conviction, it is a misdemeanor. Jail time is unusual in these cases.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Disappointed, 14 Dec 2017 @ 3:08pm

    Ait, what?

    *conspiring with members of the public against the company’s interests.*

    Is that French for 'behaving like they are accountable to the electorate, not big business'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2017 @ 7:36pm

    Yahoo!

    When she was asked to show emails from her private Yahoo account, Heard claimed it had been hacked.

    In fairness to her, given Yahoo's track record, her account probably has been hacked, along with many many others. Too bad for her the hackers were more interested in extracting data than in erasing it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 15 Dec 2017 @ 5:47am

      Re: Yahoo!

      I keep getting emails from Google advising that someone has attempted to break into an email account I don't use any more. You know what stops them? Two-step verification.

      I know it's not completely foolproof but it works fine for me.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mononymous Tim (profile), 15 Dec 2017 @ 9:33am

      Re: Yahoo!

      Only problem is, Yahoo probably hadn't announced they'd been hacked by that time. Heh

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    RG, 17 Dec 2017 @ 7:19am

    Florida Public Officials

    I had not heard of this incident previously. It really sounds like the officials were attempting to stop, or at least hamper the reckless efforts of a mining corporation to annex public land. Is their demise something we should be celebrating?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      trollificus (profile), 17 Dec 2017 @ 7:32pm

      Re: Florida Public Officials

      Sooo...are you saying there are some special "good things" that warrant illegal actions by elected officials? Okay, we go by feels instead of principles. Got it.

      And you're absolutely sure, based on some vague 3rd? 4th? hand statement, that these actions were undertaken "for the chiiildrens" and not for a competitor of this company?? Like how they protect the public, and not restaraunt owners, when they go after food trucks. That kind of good works?

      Maybe. And maybe decades of evidence have failed to trigger an adequate degree of cynicism. Abuse of government power directed at people of whom you disapprove is still abuse of government power.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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