Shielding the truth
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 2000
In 1909, the Legislature put the "public" in public records by enacting a law giving citizens the right to inspect "all state, county and municipal records." At the time, the measure was so uncontroversial it passed both houses unanimously.
Ever since then, local governments and public officials have been trying to devise ways to escape their obligations under the law.
Two recent cases involving public records requests by this newspaper and others raise questions about whether the law is being respected the way its legislative authors intended, or whether it has become for many public officials just a big game of cat and mouse.
In May, the St. Petersburg Times asked the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office for a comprehensive list of all Web sites then-State Attorney Harry Lee Coe had visited on his office computer. What was turned over by Bill Reynolds, the office's information systems director, indicated that Coe had visited only two innocuous Web sites in 1998 and thereafter had not used the Web at all. It wasn't until after Coe committed suicide in July that a second public records request by a television news reporter uncovered information that Coe had in fact used his office computer to visit gambling sites on the Web.
Why wasn't that information initially provided? Reynolds, who has since resigned his post, had no comment. But the state attorney's office should launch an investigation to determine whether there was any attempt to shield Coe from criticism and embarrassment by withholding public records. If so, criminal charges may be warranted.
Meanwhile, a troubling federal court decision has been handed down by U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara. In a case stemming from a request by the St. Petersburg Times and the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association for public records from the St. Petersburg Police Department, Judge Lazzara said the documents were shielded as part of an ongoing federal investigation.
The records involve the department's report on the investigation it conducted into allegations by an informant that St. Petersburg police Lt. Donnie Williams bought drugs in 1998. Even after the investigation had concluded and Williams was promoted, the department refused to release its findings clearing the officer.
After the suit was brought to force the department to hand over the documents, the U.S. Attorney's Office joined the case as a defendant and had it moved to federal court. Judge Lazzara insisted that he was not creating a loophole in Florida's public records law, but he did just that in deciding to keep the records from public view on the grounds they were part of an ongoing federal investigation. Now the danger is that when municipalities or police departments want to play hide and seek with public records, all they have to do is figure out a way to entangle the records in a federal matter.
When politicians and bureaucrats resist fully complying with public records law, we should be suspicious. The purpose of a strong public records law is to make public officials more accountable to the people they serve.
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