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Request to hold DeSantis’ administration in contempt is denied in a records case

Ron DeSantis speaking and holding his hand up.
Charlie Neibergall
Republican presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

A Leon County circuit judge rejected a request to hold Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration in contempt for not providing personal cell-phone records of Chief of Staff James Uthmeier that could relate to a controversial 2022 decision to fly migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

A Leon County circuit judge this week rejected a request to hold Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration in contempt for not providing personal cell-phone records of Chief of Staff James Uthmeier that could relate to a controversial 2022 decision to fly migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

Judge J. Lee Marsh denied a motion by the Florida Center for Government Accountability to hold the governor’s office in civil contempt. The one-page order, issued Monday, did not provide a written explanation, with Marsh citing comments he made during a hearing June 18.

The non-profit center filed a public-records lawsuit on Oct. 10, 2022, less than a month after the DeSantis administration flew 49 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The lawsuit alleged that the DeSantis administration had not turned over requested records about the flights.

Marsh in late October 2022 ruled in favor of the center, leading to an appeal by the governor’s office that remains unresolved. The center filed a motion for contempt in December 2022, contending that the governor’s office had not complied with Marsh’s ruling, in part because the office had not provided phone or text logs for Uthmeier’s personal cell phone.

The motion included a summary of a discussion between attorneys for the center and the DeSantis administration after Marsh’s ruling, with the two sides disagreeing about whether the Uthmeier cell-phone logs were public records.

“Plaintiff stated that records of calls or texts made or received in connection with the transaction of official business are a public record, regardless of the location of such records,” the summary said.

The DeSantis administration later argued in a court document that the motion for contempt should be denied, saying that officials had fully complied with Marsh’s ruling and that Uthmeier’s personal cell-phone information was not a public record.

“Contrary to plaintiff’s argument, defendants are not required to produce Mr. Uthmeier’s private cell phone records containing phone and text logs because such logs are not public records,” the governor’s office argued in the document.

The center on Sept. 20, 2022, and Sept. 21, 2022, filed records requests about the migrant flights, leading to the lawsuit. In his October 2022 ruling, Marsh said the administration did not properly comply with the state’s public-records law and gave it 20 days to provide the records.

“The EOG (Executive Office of the Governor) has presented no evidence to the court of what direct steps it took to identify or produce records responsive to the public records request dated September 20, 2022, some of which have yet to be produced to the plaintiff,” Marsh wrote at the time. “The court finds that the EOG is not in compliance with (the public records law). EOG’s partial production and response to the record requests were unreasonable. Specifically, the EOG has not made any production of a text or phone log of James Uthmeier as requested in the records request dated September 20, 2022.”

But in the court document responding to the contempt motion, DeSantis’ administration said it had turned over a bill for Uthmeier’s state-issued cell phone. It said the bill was the “only public record of which they (administration officials) are aware that could have contained” logs of calls or text messages. It noted that the bill for the state-issued phone “does not contain the requested information.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.