Gov. DeSantis is often secretive about his whereabouts, leaving reporters and taxpayers in the dark

By: - May 18, 2020 7:00 am

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Lawton Chiles was missing. It was April 1992, and Bill Sadowski, head of the state’s growth management agency, had gone down in a state-owned plane in St. Augustine and been killed along with the pilot, but nobody knew where to find the governor right away.

Chiles, the last Democrat to sit in Florida’s governor’s mansion, had a habit of slipping away from his Florida Department of Law Enforcement detail to hunt turkeys, veteran Tallahassee reporter Lucy Morgan, now retired, told the Phoenix recently.

That’s what he’d done the day Sadowski died.

“No one knew where Chiles was,” Morgan, the long-serving capital bureau chief of the old St. Petersburg Times (since renamed the Tampa Bay Times) and now a columnist for the Phoenix, recounted. “It was well after noon before they found him — he had been hunting — spring gobblers I think.”

It matters that the public knows what its governors are up to. So much so that Florida governors’ daily administrative schedules are official public records they are obliged to share with the press and public.

Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, though, this important document has been reaching reporters’ hands well after most of the meetings and events it documents are over and done with. Often, well into the evening.

“Historically, the governors of Florida routinely and regularly provided access to their calendars in sufficient time so that, if you know the governor’s going to be in Jacksonville tomorrow based on his calendar, and it’s a story you want to cover or I as a citizen want to be sure I’m there, then we have sufficient time to get there,” said Barbara Petersen, who recently retired after 25 years as president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

“It’s inconvenient, certainly,” when a governor releases his calendar late in the day or into the evening, she said.

“And I think it’s not particularly good public policy. Because the governor works on our behalf. We have a right to know what he’s doing and when he’s doing it. So, yes, he should be giving us his calendar in a timely manner.”

The practice reached its nadir, perhaps, on April 28, when DeSantis met with President Trump in the White House to discuss the governor’s strategy on COVID-19 just days before he would loosen restrictions on social distancing for businesses, hospitals, and other gathering places.

The daily schedule popped into reporters’ in-boxes at 8:49 p.m. — hours after the meeting. Asked about the delay, DeSantis communications director Helen Ferré told the Phoenix it should have consulted the White House schedule.

On May 13, to pick one example, a more typical daily schedule appeared at 6:54 p.m. disclosing meetings and telephone calls with aides and local government officials, mostly concerning COVID response.

The document did mention a noon discussion in the Florida Cabinet room about COVID and long-term care facilities, but that had been noticed separately at 9 a.m. — the usual practice for the communications team.

The Phoenix asked Ferré to share her thinking about the timing for these daily schedules, but hadn’t heard back as of this writing.

But the practice fits a pattern established during the administration’s early days. The Phoenix waited more than three months for a response after filing a public records request for planning information about DeSantis’ and the Florida Cabinet’s May 2019 trade mission to Israel and then received a bill for $2,700 well after the mission’s conclusion.

Other news organizations reported similar responses to their public records requests. The communications office argued at the time that it needed to clear a backlog of requests inherited from the Rick Scott administration.

In early May, the administration ceded county medical examiner data about COVID-19 deaths only under pressure from news organizations, and then redacted key information — which emerged after the Phoenix copied-and-pasted the data into a spreadsheet.

Petersen, the First Amendment advocate, stressed that the administration’s policy on release of the daily schedule is perfectly legal.

“You have a right under the Constitution and Florida law to make a public records request for the governor’s calendar. There’s nothing in the law that I’m aware of that requires the governor to provide you proactively with a copy of his calendar,” she said in a telephone interview.

In her decades covering the Capitol, reporter Morgan recalled, governors of both parties tended toward diligence in releasing their schedules although there’s been some slacking off lately.

“Bob Graham probably did the best job of publishing his schedule,” she said via email. “He put out his schedule late the day before or early on the day of if things were moving fast.” Florida’s next elected governor, Republican Bob Martinez, “generally welcomed press attention” and was “extremely open.”

It wasn’t unusual for reporters to accompany governor’s during their travels, Morgan said.

As for Jeb Bush, another Republican, he “was initially not cooperative at all with the release of his daily schedule,” Morgan said. So she posted a reporter in the governor’s reception room, where he saw first the president of the Florida Senate and then speaker of the House arrive for meetings that hadn’t been publicly noticed, as legally required at the time.

“Apparently, Jeb’s staff was not familiar with the Constitution and those requirements,” Morgan said. “Afterwards, Jeb apologized and promised to do better.”

Rick Scott “was absolutely the worst — he acted like he was president, establishing firm times that the press had to be ‘in place’ before any event and never accepting anyone on his plane that I’m aware of. I don’t think most of us really knew where he was or who he was with at any given time.”

DeSantis’ press aides also specify an in-place time for reporters and have enforced it. This reporter was denied admission when he arrived late to a press briefing on hurricane preparations held at the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

Governors, obviously, answer to the voters. But Petersen stressed that the press are surrogates for the public — their eyes in ears in the state capital.

“He’s got an attitude about open government and he’s got an attitude about the press,” she said of DeSantis. “And they’re not good attitudes, to my way of thinking. But the law’s the law. And if he’s not in violation of the law, there’s not much you can do about it.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.