Washington Post lawsuit challenges Florida law shielding DeSantis travel records

The governor's travels have come under scrutiny, especially after he jumped into the race for president.

Nov 18, 2023 - 04:21
Washington Post lawsuit challenges Florida law shielding DeSantis travel records

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida law blocking Gov. Ron DeSantis’ publicly funded travel records from the public is unconstitutional and the state should be required to turn them over, asserts a legal challenge filed by The Washington Post.

The Post’s lawsuit marks the first effort to challenge the law, which the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed just weeks before DeSantis officially announced a run for president.

GOP legislators said that the law — which applied not just to future travels but also to trips DeSantis had already taken — was needed to protect the safety of the governor and his family. But Democrats said the move was made to help out with the governor’s political ambitions by shielding his travel from public scrutiny.

The media organization first sued the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency which keeps DeSantis’ travel records, over the summer after it rebuffed the Post over four separate public records requests. Florida Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey ordered FDLE to turn over all “nonexempt public records” following a September court hearing, but the agency said certain records were exempt due to the new law.

In late October, lawyers for the Post filed a 25-page motion asking that Dempsey order the law-enforcement agency to hand over additional records, asserting that the travel records exemption was overly broad and unconstitutional. Florida voters in 1992 passed a “Sunshine amendment” that guarantees the public’s access to government records and open meetings.

“The exemption sweeps from public view every record relating in any way to the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, including the most basic information needed to inform the public about what those services are for, when they were provide, who received them and why,” states the motion filed by the Post’s lawyers. “The Florida Constitution prohibits such a gaping disconnect between the narrow justification for an exemption and its sweeping coverage.”

Dempsey, who earlier this year sided with lawyers from the DeSantis administration and ruled that the governor can withhold records under a never-before-applied doctrine of “executive privilege,” is scheduled to consider the Post’s motion at a January hearing.

A Post spokesperson said the company does not comment on pending litigation. POLITICO is using the same law firm representing The Post — Ballard Spahr — to raise questions about FDLE’s ongoing delay to comply with public record requests made by POLITICO.

DeSantis’ travels, including his use of state jets acquired after he became governor as well his reliance on private planes either chartered or owned by GOP donors, have come under scrutiny, especially after he began his campaign for president.

POLITICO previously raised questions about flights he took during a book promotional tour shortly before he officially began his campaign. The Washington Post reported in September about undisclosed flights DeSantis took between his election in 2018 and his inauguration while POLITICO reported last month that Florida’s former economic development agency paid nearly $1.6 million for an international trade mission. The bulk of the money was spent on two chartered jets that took the governor, along with first lady Casey DeSantis and other state officials and business leaders, to stops in Japan, South Korea, Israel and England.

The Post states that in April of this year — which was before the new law took effect — the news organization asked FDLE for all records related to DeSantis’ plane travel dating back to January 2019. After the initial court order demanding the state turn over some records, the Post’s legal filing states FDLE discussed what it would turn over and provided examples of travel records in its possession, including memorandums concerning reimbursements paid by DeSantis’ reelection campaign for use of the state plane.

But FDLE did not hand over all those records and instead gave the Post copies of annual FDLE reports that track overall spending by the agency on security and transportation costs. In the court filing, the Post attorneys maintained the agency decided to “renege on the parties deal.”

The Post’s legal challenge also maintains FDLE has not turned over all records related to a request to look at FDLE emails regarding the Tampa Convention Center, which was the site of DeSantis’ 2022 election night party. The Post was seeking emails related to efforts to ban concealed weapons from the Convention Center.