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Florida's 'Sunshine Law' is vital to providing important information to public

New exemptions threaten access to some records
FCC announces $10 million fine for security breach following Scripps investigation
Posted at 5:16 AM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 17:49:54-05

TAMPA, Fla. — During Scripps News Literacy Week we are looking at Florida’s Sunshine Law, which allows access to government meetings and records.

Easy access to public records is vitally important to journalists’ ability to do their jobs. Often there are roadblocks that get in the way of getting you the information you need.

When you get daily COVID infection and death reports, attend school board meetings or learn about a high profile arrest, you are getting access to information government agencies are required to provide under Florida’s open records or "Sunshine" law.

“Here in Florida, we have one of the most open public records laws in the country,” said St. Petersburg Police Public Information Officer Sandra Bentil.

Bentil previously worked as a journalist in multiple states and as a journalism teacher.

“It is perfectly within your rights as a citizen, or as a journalist. Anyone really can make a public records request,” she said.

Not all information is readily available, so newsrooms make hundreds of records requests every year.

When some records come in, it can feel like winning the lottery.

Florida Lottery records we requested helped us expose a pattern of store owners repeatedly claiming top prizes in scratch-off games.

In one case, a man and his family won dozens of times, claiming $3 million in prizes.

That investigation led to the Florida Lottery adopting new security measures and increased scratch-off lottery players’ chances of winning.

Public records helped the ABC Action News I-Team uncover how Florida road contractors added years to road construction projects.

That prompted changes in how the state manages highway projects, resulting in fewer construction delays.

And the I-Team obtained internal documents from the state office that investigates complaints against professional guardians.

We found some cases were under investigation for months or even years, leading to major changes in that office, including new senior staff.

“If we’re not allowed to see the actual government records, how can there even be investigative journalism?” said Pam Marsh, Executive Director of the First Amendment Foundation.

That’s a non-profit organization that helps news media and the public navigate open records laws to obtain the records they are seeking.

Marsh, a former federal prosecutor, says Florida government agencies are becoming less transparent.

She says when the Sunshine Law was passed by Florida voters as a constitutional amendment in the early 1990’s, it created the best access to public meetings and records nationwide.

“It’s been chipped away by the legislature every year. And these exemptions are being manipulated and distorted by local governments, by sheriff’s offices and by executive governor agencies,” Marsh said.

There are currently dozens of exemptions law enforcement can use to redact portions of reports.

In some cases, journalists receive entire pages with nothing but black ink.

And law enforcement can also prevent media from obtaining crime information under Marsy’s Law.

“Marsy’s Law is something that appeared on the ballot. This is something that the residents of Florida wanted. They wanted to make sure victims had the right to withhold their information if they so choose,” said Bentil.

Her agency asks crime victims if they are willing to be interviewed by the news media.

Other law enforcement departments redact even more information.

“It was meant to protect victims of crimes. And now it’s being used to protect a bank that was robbed, a school that was the victim of graffiti. That’s not what that was intended for,” said Marsh.

In other cases, agencies charge big fees to gather and redact records.

Then we asked for information about a sheriff’s office’s plane that was purchased for more than a million dollars but wasn’t included in the annual budget, we got an $821 fee estimate for the records.

That agency eventually provided some of the information we were seeking without any charge.

“It’s the taxpayers’ information. Why should you have to pay for it twice? And we have seen a $42,000 bill coming from a request involving contact tracing,” said Marsh.

And often news organizations face big legal bills, trying to make sure you get important information.

Five Florida Scripps television stations and other Florida media organizations joined forces with the First Amendment Foundation to threaten legal action against the state, when they claimed during the early weeks of the pandemic that important health information was exempt from public disclosure under HIPPA and other exemptions.

“We just wanted general data on the numbers of infected, deaths, schools, daycares. We’ve been through round, after round, after round,” said Marsh.

After weeks, the state finally began providing the information.

Marsh says records like those are vitally important to a free press and informed public.

“We want journalists relying on the actual facts. We want them to know the real story. Who’s making the decisions? How are the decisions being made? How much money is being spent on these decisions?” said Marsh.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com