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FLCGA’s Q and A with investigative reporter Mike DeForest about DeSantis records scoop

It started with something most journalists in Florida will tell you is commonplace: a public records request with a state agency that takes a ridiculous amount of time to fulfill.

But Mike DeForest, a veteran investigative reporter with News 6 in Orlando, didn’t just wait it out. Instead he set out to find out why state records were meeting such unreasonable delays – and what he found turned into a bombshell news story all its own.

The culprit, Deforest learned, was none other than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose administration was holding hundreds of media record requests for “review,” sometimes for months at a time.

At best what DeForest has discovered is an egregious case of government stymying the flow of public information; at worst it’s a violation of Florida law. And either way it’s a great piece of investigative reporting.

We here at the Florida Center for Government Accountability decided to get the story behind the story, as it were, from DeForest himself. And he graciously provided us a fascinating look at how he got the goods.

FLCGA: How did you find this important story and what were your biggest challenges in reporting it?

DEFOREST: In April 2021 I submitted a public records request to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation seeking some very routine travel and expense reports from the licensing agency’s former secretary who had abruptly resigned a few months earlier.

I occasionally request public records from DBPR about building and pool contractors. The agency usually produces those records in an extremely short amount of time, often within days.

So it was very surprising and unusual that it took DBPR three months to produce 61 pages of non-newsworthy expense reports that contained minimal redactions of financial account numbers. It was also suspicious that, during the 3 months I waited for that report, the agency’s usually helpful media representative was not responding to my repeated questions about the delay and my demands to view the records in-person if needed.

Something about that particular public record request was being handled very differently than all my others with that agency, and I was curious why.

So I submitted another public records request with DBPR seeking documents that might explain how my original public record request was processed.  It took more than 3 months to get them.

Those documents revealed that DPBR staff had begun retrieving the expense reports within hours of me requesting them in April 2021.

Another document showed that those expense reports were placed “with Kim for review” in early May 2021.  The documents remained “with Kim” for two months, until the day before DBPR released to me.

The DBPR spokesperson would not immediately tell me who “Kim” was.  So I submitted yet another public record request that would have revealed Kim’s last name.  The DPBR spokesperson soon acknowledged “Kim” worked in the governor’s office.

When I questioned the governor’s office about it, a spokesperson publicly confirmed  perhaps for the first time ever that the governor may “review” certain records from subordinate state agencies “to ensure the accuracy and correctness” of the record if it “concerns the governor” or “because there is reason to believe that the governor may be asked about information in the record”.

Now I was even more curious about the governor’s “review” process.

So in April 2022 I submitted a public records request to the EOG seeking any type of log that documents when those public record requests from outside agencies arrive and leave the governor’s office.

Ten months later — and four days after an attorney representing WKMG-TV contacted the EOG — the governor’s office turned over a 10-page, unredacted log.

The log revealed the governor’s legal team had reviewed hundreds of public record requests from outside state agencies. Most of those public records were originally requested by news organizations.  Some remained at the governor’s office for weeks or months before being returned to the originating agencies.

Had DBPR simply given me the former secretary’s expense reports shortly after the agency retrieved them, we might have never learned the extent of the governor’s “review” of certain public records.

FLCGA: It appears to us that the Administration is violating Florida public records law. What can be done to stop these delays from occurring and hold those responsible accountable?

DEFOREST: I want to know what Attorney General Ashley Moody thinks about this. Moody’s website proclaims that her office “has consistently sought to safeguard Florida’s pioneering Government-in-the-Sunshine laws” and works to “halt public records violations”. One of the attorneys in her office has spent years travelling the state to teach well-meaning government officials how to comply with Florida’s public record laws. But so far Moody has remained silent on whether the governor has the legal authority to delay the release of public records while “reviewing” them. Perhaps the attorney general believes the governor has that authority. If so, Floridians deserve to hear her say it and explain why it is allowed under the state’s constitution.

FLCGA: How/why did you become a journalist and do you have any advice for young people looking to enter the profession?

DEFOREST: I fell in love with TV production as a kid while making movies with my neighborhood friends using my dad’s bulky VHS camcorder. I also enjoyed writing. That led me to study broadcast journalism. I didn’t really learn about public records until moving to Florida and discovering this state’s incredible “sunshine” and public record laws Young Florida journalists need to learn about those laws and demand they be enforced. If people stop caring, the “sunshine” may go away.

FLCGA: If a member of the public were to ask you why they should care about government transparency and access to public records, how would you answer them?

DEFOREST: These records belong to the public. The public owns the records. The public paid the people who created or used the records. These records reveal how our government works.   The timely release of public records is essential to our democracy. Even if citizens never request a public record themselves, much of what they know about how our community functions is likely because someone else requested and obtained a public record or attended an open meeting.  And since folks typically behave better when they know someone may be watching, the mere existence of these laws hopefully deter some shenanigans.

About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.