Attorneys for the nation’s largest non-profit AIDS health-care provider squared off Monday against Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over Florida’s broad public-records law and how it applies to the governor’s travel records and meeting schedules.
The Scott administration does not dispute that information the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is requesting is a public record. Instead, the administration argued to a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal about the timing of the release of the information.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation in July requested the governor’s travel schedule, including his overnight accommodations, for three months in advance. The foundation requested the information after the Scott administration made contracting decisions that locked a foundation health plan, Positive Healthcare, out of the state’s Medicaid program for the next five years.
In legal briefs filed with the 1st District Court of Appeal, Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard, representing the Scott administration, argued that while the schedule isn’t exempt from the public-records law, there is a law that exempts from review “any information revealing surveillance techniques or procedures or personnel. “
“If you tell a person where the governor is going to be every time three months in advance — what time he’s going to arrive ,what time he’s going to leave, where he’s going to be lodging — effectively you are giving them the opportunity to learn the surveillance techniques, procedures and personnel,” Richard told The News Service of Florida. “Because all you have to do is get there ahead of time and watch the (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and how they are setting up their surveillance perimeter.”
Richard said the governor’s office releases Scott’s schedule daily and that the current distribution cycle “balances the public policy of open public records with the necessity of protecting the safety of public officers and law enforcement personnel.”
But AIDS Healthcare Foundation attorney Brian Finnerty said the Scott administration is citing an exemption that doesn’t apply.
“This is a very unusual case for us, and it’s because the executive office of the governor is not claiming these records are not public record,” Finnerty told the court. ”They’re just claiming that there’s a time component or a public policy component that should be read into the particular exemption that they have cited that would preclude them from having to produce the records that we requested.”
Judge Joseph Lewis Jr. asked Finnerty whether the release of the information could give people an opportunity to access surveillance-related information, but Finnerty said it would not.
“It simply would allow somebody to know what the governor’s plans are, and I think it’s consistent with the Sunshine law,” he said, referring to Florida’s public-records law.
The Scott administration took the case to the appeals court after Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled Sept. 5 that the information was a public record. Dodson initially ordered Scott’s office to provide it within 10 days, but the appeals court delayed the effect of the decision while it considered the case.
The lawsuit is part of a series of legal battles that came after the state Agency for Health Care Administration did not renew a five-year Medicaid contract with the foundation’s Positive Healthcare to provide Medicaid services in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
In one of the other cases, the foundation is asking a judge to nullify Medicaid managed-care contracts. The Agency for Health Care Administration tried unsuccessfully to have the case tossed from administrative court, and a decision in the case is pending, according to the state Division of Administrative Hearings website.
Also, another case has been filed in Leon County circuit court arguing that the Scott administration is violating the public records law.
Both parties agreed last month to push back a hearing in that case, saying they were working on a possible agreement.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation attorney Ryan Andrews, however, said progress on that case has slowed. Andrews said he would give the state additional time to respond to his client’s request for information because Tallahassee was affected by Hurricane Michael. But Andrews said “it may be brought back up.”