For the past month, Gov. Rick Scott has weathered a growing firestorm over his removal of veteran FDLE chief Gerald Bailey. The scandal began with Bailey slamming the governor for claiming he'd left voluntarily, then deepened when Scott's own cabinet members turned on the governor and demanded an independent investigation.
Now, a coalition of Florida newspapers and the Associated Press have filed a lawsuit against Scott and his cabinet that alleges they violated sunshine laws by conspiring to oust Bailey outside the public eye.
Scott's approval ratings, meanwhile, have already taken a hit as a majority of Floridians say they want an investigation into Bailey's firing.
The new lawsuit comes in Leon County via the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, the AP, and a coalition of sunshine law activists. The gist of the argument: Scott and his cabinet -- Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and CFO Jeff Atwater -- broke the law by using staffers to coordinate Bailey's ouster in December and his replacement with Jeff Swearington.
Here's the heart of the complaint:
This action seeks a declaration that the Florida Cabinet is subject to the Sunshine Law when cabinet aides seek to act for and exchange information among Cabinet members as to decisions about hiring and firing the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The Governor violated the Sunshine Law by using conduits to engage in polling, discussions, communications and other exchanges with other members of the Cabinet regarding his unilateral decision to force the resignation of the FDLE Commissioner and appoint a replacement without any notice to the public, without any opportunity for the public to attend, and without any minutes being taken. Because the Governor appears to justify this conduct by claiming it is part of a longstanding convention and tradition, Plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief.
In addition to further unraveling the Bailey saga, activists hope the suit can take a crack at a longstanding problem: cabinet members using staffers to quietly communicate before meetings to circumvent the open-records law.
The suit lands just as Scott and his cabinet gather in Tampa for a ceremony to inaugurate the state fair. The four officials are scheduled to talk about the Bailey fiasco but aren't likely to reveal any more specifics.
The governor, meanwhile, hasn't exactly extinguished the flames this week. On Monday, he released a new FAQ on the controversy, including this tidbit:
"Q. Did Gov. Scott instruct anyone on his staff to remove Gerald Bailey immediately? A. No. Gerald Bailey was asked to work out his transition with his successor."
Bailey's quick response: That is "absolutely untrue."
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