Fla. senator wants transition records kept public

Gov. Rick Scott talks to reporters in Lake Buena Vista on Sept. 19. (The Associated Press/File)

Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:49 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — The deletion of emails sent by Gov. Rick Scott and members of his transition team may spark a change in state law.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville and a leading GOP senator, filed a measure on Wednesday that would make it clear all records, including emails sent and received by newly-elected officials, are public records even if the person hasn't been sworn into office yet.

His bill will be considered during the 2012 session of the Florida Legislature that starts next week. If the bill passes, it would take effect this July.

Gaetz has the governor's backing of the bill, which comes months after Scott ordered an investigation into how and why emails he wrote before he became governor were deleted. While the investigation has yet to wrap up, documents released so far showed that emails from both an iPad and smartphone used by the governor were lost.

The Scott administration said it is supporting the bill to avoid what happened this past year.

Transition records are generally understood to be public records, but a review of transition records by The Associated Press has shown a wide disparity in how the records — including emails — by both the governor's office and the offices of top Cabinet officials are collected and stored. Some records are turned over to state archives, but others, for example, have wound up in the basement of Capitol offices.

The Scott transition team used a private company to handle its email accounts. Former Gov. Charlie Crist's transition team used state computers to handle its email accounts, although some members of the team were never asked to turn over any emails from their personal email accounts.

"I believe that for once and for all we ought to clarify that the transition records of statewide elected officials are public records," Gaetz said. "Plans are made, key personnel decisions are decided, policies are decided during the transition and I think they ought to be open to the public and press."

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation and who has tried to get copies of transition records, called Gaetz's bill "great."

Scott widely used email on the campaign trail and after he was elected, but then he stopped for the first eight months of his administration.

The private company that handled emails for Scott's transition team shut down most of the accounts in early 2011. Members of the transition team were warned ahead of time the accounts would be shut down but no one tried to preserve the emails before that happened.

The Scott administration in August publicly acknowledged the emails had been lost after they had tried to retrieve copies. Scott at the same time ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the deletion of the transition emails and see whether or not they could be retrieved from Rackspace, the Texas company that handled the accounts.

Some of the emails that were finally retrieved during the summer showed former Gov. Jeb Bush had urged Scott prior to his swearing-in to push for universal private school vouchers, save money by releasing elderly prisoners and look at taxing online sales as part of a swap to lower other taxes.

State law enforcement department officials have not said how much longer its investigation will go on.

But documents released so far show that a state employee accidentally deleted emails from an iPad used by Scott. Law enforcement agents turned to a Blackberry used by Scott but the effort to retrieve those emails wasn't entirely successful.

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