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A battle over DeSantis' travel records ratchets up

Ron DeSantis pointing and talking into a microphone at a podium
Phil Sears
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media in the Florida Cabinet following his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

It follows a lawsuit filed by The Washington Post seeking documents that included information about DeSantis’ flight records.

A legal battle has intensified about public records related to travel by Gov. Ron DeSantis, as The Washington Post accused the governor’s office of taking “control” of Florida Department of Law Enforcement compliance with the state’s Sunshine Law.

A lawsuit about the records has roiled the FDLE, resulting in whistleblower complaints and the ouster of two high-ranking officials.

The Post filed the lawsuit against the agency in July, months after seeking documents that included information about DeSantis’ flight records and travel vouchers for an FDLE employee.

An amended lawsuit filed Thursday added “the Executive Office of the Governor” as a defendant, pointing to events surrounding a contentious meeting between Janine Robinson, an FDLE attorney who advocated for providing the records, and DeSantis aides who demanded the documents be withheld.

A court record filed Friday by the FDLE said that Robinson is no longer representing the agency in the lawsuit and that she was being replaced by Gunster Yoakley & Stewart P.A. attorneys Joe Jacquot, Nathan Hill and Audrey Gangloff. Jacquot is a former general counsel for Desantis. Attorneys for the FDLE also asked for a scheduled Jan. 10 hearing to be delayed for 30 days because the new lawyers require “additional time” to prepare.

The Post’s amended lawsuit argued that “it has become apparent … that FDLE is not alone in its culpability for violating the Post's rights.”

“The governor's office has taken control over FDLE's compliance with the Post's requests, overruled the department's (FDLE’s) legal interpretation, and directed the agency to renege on a promise to provide certain travel records and thus withhold public records to which the Post is statutorily and constitutionally entitled,” the news organization’s attorneys wrote in the amended complaint.

Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey in September ordered the agency to provide “all nonexempt public records” to the Post. The FDLE promised that it would disclose records such as an “18-page spreadsheet containing information related to the governor’s travel by plane,” according to the amended lawsuit.

But after the governor’s aides confronted Robinson about the records, the documents were not provided to the Post.

The amended lawsuit also pointed to a Nov. 28 email from Patricia Carpenter, a former deputy chief of staff at FDLE, to FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass detailing what took place at the meeting between Robinson and DeSantis aides and subsequent events linked to it.

Carpenter’s email, first reported by The News Service of Florida, said she was seeking whistleblower protection and complained that Robinson was denied a raise and a promotion because of the dispute with the governor’s office over the records. Carpenter was put on administrative leave and fired on Dec. 1. Carpenter’s boss — former FDLE Chief of Staff Shayne Desguin — also was put on administrative leave and forced to retire after tangling with DeSantis’ staff.

The revised lawsuit, which cited the News Service story, alleged that DeSantis aides’ interference with the production of the records makes the governor’s office, in part, responsible for providing them.

“The governor's office thus wrested control over the responsive public records from FDLE, thereby giving EOG (the Executive Office of the Governor) constructive custody over those records and making it a custodian of these records” under Florida law, the Post’s lawyers argued. “That exercise of power may have occurred behind closed doors, but because it resulted in a violation of the Post's statutory and constitutional rights, the law requires accountability.”

The meeting involved a heated discussion about the release of the documents after the Republican-controlled Legislature this spring passed a law shielding DeSantis’ travel records. The law applied retroactively.

According to Carpenter’s email to Glass, Robinson tried to convince DeSantis aides that the law did not exempt from disclosure all of the records being sought but that the governor’s staff “absolutely disagreed and explicitly directed that none of the records would be released.”

Robinson “was extremely upset and explained that she and COS (Chief of Staff) Desguin had been part of the team drafting this statute and what they were asking for was not the intent of this law or what is allowed by law,” the email said.

“Janine also noticed/informed EOG that she had already told press outlets what they would be getting regarding specific records and their outstanding public records requests. EOG‘s stance was let them sue, we will fight it in court and believed the court would be friendly to them. The meeting ended shortly after this discussion,” Carpenter wrote to Glass.

DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern disputed Carpenter’s account.

“The governor’s office has received multiple complaints of this employee creating a hostile work environment,” he told the News Service last month.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.