Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the state of Florida this week agreed to pay $700,000 to settle several lawsuits that contended that the Republican governor and other state officials flouted the state's public records law.
It is believed to be one of the larger payments ever approved in an open government case in Florida history, but the settlement means that Scott can avoid having a judge rule that his administration broke the law. The agreement also ends a related lawsuit against Attorney General Pam Bondi.
The settlement will end a long-running dispute between Scott and a Tallahassee attorney and a persistent critic of the governor. The battle started initially over a tract of land near the governor's mansion the state wanted to acquire, but it broadened into several lawsuits filed by Steven Andrews that accused Scott, two state agencies and Bondi of ignoring public records requests.
Scott lost a bid to block Andrews from trying to get information about private email accounts. Then late last year Scott turned over nearly 200 pages of emails to The Associated Press that showed he had used a private account to discuss state business. Andrews was allowed to cite the emails as evidence against the governor.
Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, acknowledged the settlement Friday and said "it was the right thing to do for the state." The settlement was first reported by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau.
Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi, said the attorney general agreed to settle their lawsuit "to avoid litigation costs."
Andrews, who has refused to comment on settlement discussions, will get paid $700,000 by taxpayers. The money will come from Scott's office as well as from Bondi's office and two other state agencies. Schutz said that the payment will come from existing budgets and won't require legislative approval.
The settlement amount, however, doesn't cover all the costs surrounding the litigation. State records show that the governor's office has also spent nearly $100,000 to hire outside lawyers to defend the governor and former top aides.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, questioned why the administration would settle the case if Scott had not broken the law. She said it was one of highest awards she had seen in an open government case.
"Our governor plays fast and loose with our constitution and we're stuck with his legal bills. It's outrageous," she said.
The settlement was signed this past Wednesday. That's the same day that Scott and members of the Cabinet agreed to settle the land dispute with Andrews that sparked the public records lawsuits.
Under that deal, Andrews will be allowed to purchase land near the governor's mansion about a mile north of the state Capitol. The Scott administration wanted the land as part of a plan to turn the adjacent historic home of former Gov. LeRoy Collins into a museum. Records showed that Scott administration officials at one point discussed redeveloping the entire area into a "mansion park" that would be part of Scott's legacy.
Andrews contended that state officials were not interested in the property until Scott found out that he was purchasing the land, which also includes his law offices. The state insisted it had the rights to acquire the land even though Andrews was already trying to buy the property. As part of that lawsuit, Andrews sought to obtain information about private email accounts set up by Scott and top aides.
The acrimony between Scott and Andrews dates to the 2010 governor's race. Right before the Republican primary Andrews sued for release of a deposition Scott gave for a lawsuit against one of his businesses. He once called Scott the "corporate spawn of Satan."