Judge Rules Against State’s Secrecy
In a victory for open government advocates, a Florida judge has ruled that public officials improperly withheld information from a vendor that accused a state agency of holding secret, closed-door meetings.
The vendor, MHM Correctional Services, provides mental health care to more than 15,000 inmates in a dozen south Florida prisons and wants to extend its 2 ½-year contract. The state’s Department of Corrections wants to replace MHM with a vendor that would charge taxpayers $5.5 million more for the same service.
MHM filed a lawsuit against the state accusing it of illegally favoring a competitor and of holding “secret” and “closed-door” talks with the firm. The complaint points out that the department’s secret negotiations violate its own internal procedures and flaunt the state’s procurement process and inexplicable insistence on wasting $5 million in public funds.
The ousted vendor further alleged that the state violated its open records law—known as the Sunshine Law—by omitting electronic mails related to the case.
In-house counsel defending the corrections department in court argued that Florida’s Sunshine Law doesn’t apply to state purchasing committees.
However, a judge in Tallahassee slammed the argument this week, ruling that the Florida Department of Corrections did in fact improperly withhold public records. ”The court has conducted an in-camera inspection of the document containing the e-mail stream and has determined that it is not exempt…” Circuit Judge Kevin Davey wrote in his opinion.
[Update – Early reports indicated that Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum was defending the Corrections Department, but that was incorrect and our blog entry has been updated appropriately.]