Florida Governor Responds To Lawsuit Over Coronavirus Infection Documents By Pressuring Newspaper's Law Firm To Drop The Suit

from the yes-more-opacity-will-definitely-flatten-the-curve dept

We're at a time when we need more transparency from our government officials than ever. And, of course, we're not getting it. The White House ordered federal health officials to designate documents from top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, keeping them away from FOIA requesters. The nation's other coronavirus task force -- headed by Jared Kushner -- is carrying out its official business using private email accounts.

Things aren't much better at the state level. The Miami Herald filed a public records request seeking information about nursing homes in the state affected by the virus. The governor has repeatedly refused to release this information, which is putting healthcare workers and nursing home residents at risk. So, the Miami Herald sued. It notified Governor Ron DeSantis' counsel that it would be filing suit, as is required by the state's litigation process. The governor's lawyers responded by telling the Herald's legal rep to drop the case.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ general counsel called a representative of the Miami Herald’s law firm seeking to quash a public records lawsuit that would force the state to divulge the names of all elder-care facilities that have had a positive test for the coronavirus.

The back-door pressure — through an attorney that had no involvement in the case — paid off.

The law firm, Holland & Knight, told Sanford Bohrer, a senior partner with decades of representing the Miami Herald, to stand down and abandon the lawsuit.

The newspaper will not be abandoning its lawsuit. It has found another law firm to take up its case. But there's already a chill in the air, thanks to these actions.

It appears the governor's office spoke to a different partner in the firm, rather than the lawyer representing the paper. Conveniently, this member of the law firm has represented the state in other matters, making it that much easier to persuade the law firm to drop the Herald as a client in this case.

General Counsel Joe Jacquot sought to short-circuit the litigation. He didn’t call the lawyer who drafted the lawsuit and had sent the letter, but rather another Holland & Knight lawyer, George Meros.

Meros has represented the state on numerous matters, including its recent efforts to defend legislation that undermines the intent of Amendment 4, the ballot measure — passed overwhelmingly — that gives felons the right to vote after they have served their sentences.

Meros has represented a long list of state agencies during his career as an attorney. And his employer apparently felt the best step to take was to direct the paper to drop its lawsuit.

The governor is claiming his office did nothing wrong. His office's spokesperson says contacting a law firm to dissuade them from filing a lawsuit is just a normal pre-litigation tactic used to "avoid unnecessary litigation." That would make sense if the governor's office had called to settle or offer to turn over the records the paper is seeking. But it didn't do that. The governor's lawyer instead leaned on a law firm employee with a long history of defending the state in lawsuits and the firm obliged by "advising" the paper to drop the lawsuit.

There's enough plausible deniability built into this that the blame may lie with the law firm, rather than the governor's office. If the law firm wanted to pass on the lawsuit due to possible conflicts of interest, it could have said as much. And if the governor's office wanted to discuss the lawsuit during the five-day waiting period, it could have spoken to the paper's rep, rather than an attorney that had frequently defended the government in the past. None of that happened, and the paper was forced to hire a new legal rep to continue seeking information the governor's office should have been willing to release in the first place.

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Filed Under: florida, foia, george meros, law firms, litigation, pressure, public records, ron desantis, sanford bohrer, threats, transparency
Companies: holland & knight, miami herald

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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 2:07pm

    Good to know

    Well, nice of that law firm to make it crystal clear that if you want to file a lawsuit against the state you'd be better off filing on your own before even thinking of hiring them for the job.

    Handy little time and money saver that.

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