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Media Sues Fla. Governor Over Official’s Ouster

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) - The Associated Press, Florida Society of New Editors and a St. Petersburg attorney sued Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet on claims they violated the state's open meeting law to oust a law enforcement official from office.

As described in a complaint filed in the Leon, Fla. circuit court, on December 16, 2014, Scott directed an aide to tell Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey to resign or face being fired by the end of the day.

To further pressure Bailey, the lawsuit says, the aide allegedly told him the decision was backed by the cabinet.

The plaintiffs say that between that day and January 13, 2015, Scott aides polled, discussed and communicated with cabinet members about the forced resignation, as well as Bailey's intended replacement.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine prevents members of the Cabinet from discussing any matter that may come before them without giving advance notice so that the public has an opportunity to attend. Furthermore, minutes must be taken for any such proceedings.

The plaintiffs argue that since the aides were acting on behalf of the Cabinet members they are subject to the mandates of the Sunshine Law.

These allegedly illegal communications, according to the lawsuit, included statements that Bailey decided to resign and that he wished for Rick Swearingen to be named as his replacement.

The aides also polled cabinet members to determine with they had any objections to Swearingen's appointment, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs contend that the aides knew the issue of firing and replacing a department head should have to come before the cabinet for a vote, yet no advance notice was given to the public prior to these exchanges and the public was given no opportunity to attend these discussions nor were any minutes were taken.

On January 13, 2015, during a regularly scheduled cabinet meeting, the governor and the Cabinet ceremonially appointed Rick Swearingen as commissioner of FDLE without any debate or discussion.

The plaintiffs, which include attorney Matthew Weidner, claim that under Florida's Sunshine Law, it was their right to attend any meeting or discussion between two or more members of the Cabinet about an issue that would likely come before the full panel for a vote.

Scott has told the media that the practice of Cabinet members discussing appointments prior to a meeting is a longstanding convention. But the media plaintiffs disagree, and contend that if this is standard operating procedure in the Scott administration, and allowed to continue, it would harm them as journalists assigned to cover Florida politics. They are seeking an injunction that would put an end the practice and an order reaffirming that all cabinet business be conducted "in the sunshine" as is the constitutional right of every Florida citizen.

The plaintiffs are represented by Andrea Flynn Mogensen of Sarasota, Fla.

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