State Attorney Jeff Ashton says that Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and four other county commissioners broke Florida’s public records by deleting text messages they received about a proposed referendum that, if approved by voters, would have required certain large companies to give employees sick time.
The chairman of the Orange County Republican executive committee, Lew Oliver, communicated with commissioners by text and telephone on and before the Sept. 11, 2012 meeting, orchestrating the commission’s vote to delay the referendum so that the Republican-dominated legislature could later pass a state law banning such sick time ordinances. The legislature did just that – administering the so-called “head shot” that Oliver anticipated in at least one of his text messages.
“My conclusion, therefore, is that these text messages were public records and could only lawfully be disposed of pursuant to statute," Ashton wrote. "The statutory procedures in this case were not followed and, therefore, all of the officials who deleted text messages related to this issue violated Florida law.”
Ashton received a complaint from an Orange County resident requesting the criminal investigation into whether the commission violated Florida State Statutes by receiving "public input during a properly scheduled meeting, and such input not being placed within the official meeting minutes."
At that meeting, the commission voted to delay putting it on the ballot after allegedly being coached by special interests texting the mayor and commissioners during the meeting. Some commissioners haven't turned over their text messages, some saying they were either deleted or too tough to retrieve.
The messages that were retrieved showed some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers in crafting what would happen to the paid sick time measure, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Ashton concluded the mayor and commissioners violated the law, but did not do so intentionally, willfully or knowingly and, therefore, should not be subjected to criminal prosecution. Instead, he found they violated the lowest-possible threshold for sanctions under that law, a civil matter known as strict liability. He is asking each of them to voluntarily pay the maximum $500 civil fine. If they do not, Ashton said, he would seek a resolution through court action.
“ It seems very clear to me this is the correct statute to apply and the correct punishment to seek in response to the actions of Mayor Jacobs, Commissioner (Scott) Boyd, Commissioner (Fred) Brummer, Commissioner (Jennifer) Thompson and former Commissioner (John) Martinez," Ashton continued in his report, released on Wednesday.
Local 6 caught up with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs at the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board meeting Wednesday morning, where she refused to comment on Ashton's findings.
"I've been here in a meeting for the last two-and-a-half hours," she said. "I haven't had a chance to read the report, so I'm not going to comment on it."
The messages revealed a concerted effort by lobbyists for Orange County’s biggest employers to block a ballot measure that would have mandated some businesses to offer sick leave to workers.
The complaint also asked for investigation into if the commission violated the state’s Government in the Sunshine statute by communicating via electronic devices about the vote, but Ashton found they did not violate that law because the communications were not among themselves, but rather with lobbyists, Oliver and others.
"We don't treat elected officials differently that anyone else, he said. "We go on the evidence we have. The evidence we have in this case is they didn't realize they were public records."
The messages may have shed light on who they were communicating with during the meeting over a ballot measure that would have mandated some businesses to offer sick leave to workers, but the content of the messages wasn't what Ashton's investigation focused on.
Ashton met with the FDLE on Jan. 17 to request the "inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2012 meeting of the Orange County Commission," which has since been dubbed by residents as "Textgate."
Watch Local 6 for more on this story.