On December 16, 2014, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey ‘resigned’ from office. While Governor Rick Scott initially claimed that Bailey’s departure was voluntary, Bailey and his supporters claim Bailey was forced out, and an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald soon revealed that there had been long-standing tension between Scott and Bailey over Bailey’s refusal to use FDLE resources to assist in Scott’s reelection campaign for governor. Scott’s administration has issued numerous ‘FAQ’ media releases, but the ‘FAQ’s were quickly debunked by the Tampa Bay Times. Scott eventually admitted that Bailey was removed, but controversy still lingers over allegations such as Scott abusing his power, and the failure of the cabinet to act.
The scandal, which has been dubbed ‘Baileygate’ by many pundits, comes less than a month into Scott’s second term as governor, and was uncovered thanks to the Florida Sunshine Law. Contrary to its name, ‘the Sunshine Law’ has nothing to do with the celestial body that is orbited by our planet. According to the Office of the Attorney General of Florida, the Sunshine Law “provides that any records made or received by any public agency in the course of its official business are available for inspection, unless specifically exempted by the Florida Legislature.” In other words, any and all documents produced by and sent to state or local government, from e-mails to documents to sound recordings, are automatically available to anyone at any time unless the Florida legislature exempts those specific records.
Because of the Sunshine Law, the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald had access to a treasure-trove of records and emails that revealed Scott’s various requests to Bailey, and Bailey’s subsequent refusals. In fact, some groups have launched a lawsuit, accusing Rick Scott and his cabinet of Sunshine Law violations.
However, it isn’t just high-profile journalists that can utilize the Sunshine Law effectively. Regular citizens are also able to access state and local government records through the same process. All it takes is a request to the office of the relevant state or local government office, and public records requests can even be filled out online in the comfort of your own home. Ever since the Sunshine Law’s inception in 1909, it has been a crucial tool in open government and government transparency in Florida. Sunshine Laws allows anybody to hold their government officials accountable, and facilitate an active and involved citizenry.
The Sunshine Law’s continued existence has been a boon for the citizens of Florida, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the sun does not set on the Sunshine Law.