Florida has a national reputation for its Public Records Law. But a new study by the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International has given the Sunshine State a D in “Public Access to Information.”
The State Integrity Investigation is the first attempt to look across all states at how good the system is for preventing political corruption.
The investigation graded each state on more than 300 indicators of accountability, transparency, and corruption risk. The indicators are divided into 14 categories, which appear on the report card.
A few months back, State Rep. Mike Fasano (R – Pasco County) was trying to figure out why the State Board of Administration – the state agency that oversees more than $100 billion in pensions and other public funds – had invested $125 million in a private equity firm.
It’s a public record.
“At that time we just thought it would be extremely easy and quick to get,” Fasano said.
Fasano sent a public records request and quickly got an email response saying it would take months to answer Fasano’s question, and that the State Rep. would have to pay a small fortune to cover the labor costs – more than $10,000.
“My staff and I looked at each other in almost a laughable state saying, ‘They’ve got to be joking.’ This can’t be correct.”
Senator Fasano ran head-on into some of the reasons the State Integrity Investigation gives Florida a D for “Public Access to Information.”
The incident shows that despite Florida’s reputation as an oasis of open information, there are major weaknesses with the state’s Public Records Law.
“If a state senator can’t get some simple information, then how would the average citizen ever be able to get a question answered by a state agency?,” Fasano said.
Long-time media lawyer Florence Snyder says the state’s Public Records Law also prevents the media from reporting on issues that may affect taxpayers.
“If they do it to sitting senators, you can imagine what they do to the press,” Snyder said.
Snyder says government agencies used to have lawyers who made information easier to access. But she says she has seen a shift in the past two decades.
Now she says it seems the lawyers and public relations spokesperson people find ways to drag their feet. And she says there’s no law or agency to prevent the media – or anyone -- from getting the run-around.
“A public official getting ticketed for obstructing a soccer mom in her pursuit of information about how the bake sale money got spent stands a high likelihood good of not getting caught,” she said.
By far the biggest reason Florida earned a D in the investigation is that the state doesn’t have a full-time agency to enforce the Public Records Law.
The closest that Florida comes is the Attorney General’s Open Government Office. It can help mediate public records disputes. But it can’t initiate investigations or impose penalties for public records violations.
Pat Gleason heads up that office and stands behind Florida’s process.
“I’m surprised that our rating would have been that low,” she said. “There are always areas where we can improve, but I think that overall, the laws in this state reflect a commitment to the importance of public access.”
Gleason says Florida’s laws are still some of the best in the country.
Mike Fasano, the senator who put in the public records quest, doesn’t necessarily agree.
He had to raise a ruckus, but he did manage to get the documents he wanted -without paying $10,000.
When they arrived though, he learned something else about the Florida Public Records Law: There are a lot of exemptions.
He still doesn’t know why Florida invested in the hedge fund, because so much of the information in the documents was blacked out.