Officers of the Court Using Government Computers for Political Gain

There is growing evidence that State Attorneys and Judges in Florida are using government computers for personal or political gain.

Florida has “Sunshine Laws”. According to the Florida Attorney General’s Government Under the Sunshine website:

Florida began its tradition of openness back in 1909 with the passage of Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes or the ‘Public Records Law’. Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967. These statutes establish a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities.”

According to the Attorney General, “The definition of what constitutes ‘public records’ has come to include not just traditional written documents such as papers, maps and books, but also tapes, photographs, film, sound recordings and records stored in computers.” Chapter 286 of the Florida Statues gives the public basic rights to access to public records.

Recently public records requests have exposed Judges and State Attorneys using government computers for personal or political gain.

The Tampa Bay Times in an August 22, 2012 column on The Buzz reports, “State Attorney Robert ‘Skip’’ Jarvis of Live Oak [FL] has reached an agreement that will allow him to avoid prosecution for using law enforcement databases to research his political opponents and others.”

The Tampa Bay Times column notes, “The investigation of Jarvis began earlier this year when San Fillipo, a former assistant for Jarvis, complained to FDLE that his former boss had improperly researched state and federal records concerning his wife. Details of the investigation were included in a report King submitted to the governor’s office. FDLE agents determined that Jarvis had also conducted other searches that appeared to be improper, including a search of records relating to the wife of his Republican opponent.”

On April 12, 2012 Mr. Joel Chandler, a citizen, filed a public records request involving State Attorney Edward Brodsky, who serves as Assistant State Attorney in Florida’s 12th Judicial Circuit. After a number of communications between Chandler and Brodsky a lawsuit was filed seeking over 300 emails that Brodsky has not released. According to the lawsuit, “This is an action seeking a writ of mandamus and declaratory relief for a violation of the Florida Public Records Act by Eduardo Brodsky, Chief Assistant State Attorney for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit.  Plaintiff contends that Mr. Brodsky has unlawfully refused to produce public records in his possession to which no valid exemption applies.”

The lawsuit states, “Based  on information and belief, included  within the  364 pages of material withheld are public records to  which  no valid  exemption  applies. Review of other records obtained from other sources indicates that items included in the withheld material are records relating to official government business. Mr. Brodsky utilized his governmental e-mail address to conduct substantial governmental business, including the e-mail records sought here.”

Watchdog Wire previously reported on the use of 12th Circuit Court computers, including emails exchanges between Brodsky and Judge Janette Dunnigan, were used to coordinate a fund raising event for the Brodsky campaign. The email violates Canon 7 of the Judicial Code of Ethics and it is a crime under Florida Statutes. Cannon 7 states all judges shall not “publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office.”

A concern among citizens is when requesting public records for officers of the court, the determination of what is and is not a public record is determined after the fact. 

According to Dennis Menendez, Chief Information Officer for the 12th Circuit, the email from Judge Dunnigan, “was previously reviewed for another public records request and was determined to be a private email not subject to public disclosure pursuant to Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.420(c) and case law.  See State v. City of Clearwater, 863 So. 2d 149 (Fla. 2003) and In re Amendments to Rule of Judicial Administration 2.051-Public Access to Judicial Records, 651 So. 2d 1185 (Fla. 1995).”

When a public records request is made it is then that the officer of the court determines whether it is private or public. For most citizens the use of any government computer during working hours would constitute public use and must therefore be open to Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

It appears officers of the court live by a different set of rules.

A citizen went to both the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Circuit to file criminal charges against Judge Dunnigan. Both offices refused to take the complaint. The citizen believes there is probable cause that Florida Statute 104.31 was violated by Judge Dunnigan. FS 104.31 states in part:

No officer or employee of the state, or of any county or municipality thereof, except as hereinafter exempted from provisions hereof, shall:

(a) Use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election or a nomination of office or coercing or influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof.

(b) Directly or indirectly coerce or attempt to coerce, command, or advise any other officer or employee to pay, lend, or contribute any part of his or her salary, or any money, or anything else of value to any party, committee, organization, agency, or person for political purposes.

Florida Statute 106.15(4) – makes it a crime to use state property (email server, computer) for campaign purposes. Florida Statute 104.31 – makes it a crime for a state employee to participate in campaign activities while on duty (this email was sent on a date and time when Dunnigan was working on duty as a Judge.

The Florida judicial system appears to protect rather than prosecute its members under Florida’s Sunshine Laws. Perhaps it is time for Governor Rick Scott to appoint a State Attorney to investigate the case of Judge Dunnigan, as he did in the case of Mr. Jarvis?