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DeSantis lawyers argue top deputy’s phone logs not a public record

TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis told a judge on Tuesday that records of phone calls about state business made on an official’s private cellphone were not public, a dramatic new interpretation of the state’s public records law and the administration’s latest attempt to shield information from the public.

During a nearly two-hour hearing about records relating to DeSantis’ 2022 migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard, lawyers acknowledged that DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, was using his personal phone, instead of his state-issued one, to conduct official taxpayer-funded business.

But they argued that a log of phone calls, like the ones on a billing statement, are “data points” that aren’t subject to the state’s broad public records law because they weren’t produced on state property or with funds paid for by the state.

“If you hold that these tertiary data points are somehow public records that also have to be captured by a public records custodian, that is a sweeping — sweeping — interpretation of public records,” DeSantis lawyer Christopher Lunny told Leon County Circuit Judge Lee Marsh on Tuesday.

But under that argument, Marsh said, all government business could be shielded from the public.

“We ought to just put out word, ‘Let’s do all of our business on private, bring-your-own cellphones,” Marsh said. “Then we don’t need public records laws because there’ll be no public records, right?”

The watchdog group Florida Center for Government Accountability sued DeSantis’ administration in 2022 to obtain public records about the migrant flights that sent 44 people from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14 that year.

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