Florida Officials Deny Pressuring Law Firm to Drop Coronavirus Records Case

(CN) — The Florida governor’s office pushed back Monday against claims that it exerted back-door pressure on the Miami Herald’s counsel to withdraw from the newspaper’s planned public records lawsuit over unreleased coronavirus data.​

In a weekend report detailing a shakeup in its own legal staff, the Herald alleged that its lawyer Sanford Bohrer was abruptly told by his law firm, Holland & Knight, to “stand down and abandon” the publication’s anticipated public records lawsuit against the state of Florida.  The lawsuit aims to obtain data on which Florida nursing homes have been affected by the novel coronavirus outbreak.  ​

A religious statue sits beyond yellow tape roping off a closed public park in Miami last week amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Herald report claimed general counsel for the governor’s office, Joe Jacquot, “sought to short-circuit the litigation.” He allegedly exerted “back-door pressure” to kill the case by contacting George Meros, a Holland & Knight attorney who has represented various state agencies over the years. 

Denying the claim, the governor’s office said by phone Monday that Jacquot’s contact with Holland & Knight was limited to a routine conversation about a presuit notice he had received from the Herald.

When asked if he exerted any pressure on the firm to withdraw from the litigation, Jacquot said, “Not at all.” ​

“My only purpose for calling was that [there was] a five-day window to see if we could figure out some resolution, which we are still working on,” Jacquot said. ​

Helen Ferre, a spokesperson for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ office, added: “We’re undergoing [a] global pandemic. This public records request was made March 23. We only have essential workers who are physically in the building, so it’s taking a little bit longer to fulfill all the public records requests. Two and a half weeks, especially under these circumstances, is not an unreasonable time.”​

The governor’s office said it reached out to Meros rather than the firm’s Miami counsel because Meros was a familiar contact who worked in the state capital, Tallahassee. ​

Holland & Knight told Courthouse News that it declined to represent the Herald for legitimate reasons, including avoiding a potential conflict of interest. The firm said the litigation will move forward unimpeded through the newspaper’s new counsel. ​

“After assessing the possibility of a conflict of interest, the confidentiality of client communications, and the risk of an adverse impact or delay on the Miami Herald’s records request, the firm concluded that it was best for another law firm to take over the matter,” the firm said.  ​

The Herald said Monday that it has hired Linda LoCicero at Thomas & LoCicero to replace Holland & Knight for the public records lawsuit. ​

Executive editor Aminda Marques Gonzalez said in a statement: “We are disappointed that the governor’s office would go so far as to apply pressure on our legal counsel to prevent the release of public records that are critical to the health and safety of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens.​

“We shouldn’t have had to resort to legal action in the first place. Anyone with a relative in an elder care facility has a right to know if their loved ones are at risk so they can make an informed decision about their care,” Marques added.

The Herald expects to file the lawsuit in Leon County against the governor’s office, the state health department and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. The newspaper claims that the state “has yet to provide a legal justification for its refusal to provide records” in response to the March 23 public records request. The request sought data detailing which nursing homes have experienced Covid-19 infections, but did not ask for names of patients or workers who tested positive. 

The novel coronavirus outbreak prompted DeSantis in mid-March to prohibit people from visiting nursing home residents. Limited exceptions were carved out, such as situations where family members and friends are seeking to say their last goodbyes to dying residents.​

Florida nursing homes across the state have reported Covid-19 outbreaks, including Atria Willow Wood in Fort Lauderdale, the site of several coronavirus deaths. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the state has the sixth highest number of registered nursing facilities in the country, with more than 690.​

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