Tallahassee Democrat Investigation Leads to Massive Public Records Shift

A text exchange between city manager Rick Fernandez and a lobbyist led to a landmark legal settlement with the city of Tallahassee that may be emulated by other cities in Florida.

After its months long investigation resulted in the discovery that Tallahassee city manager Rick Fernandez deleted and lied about the existence of text messages soliciting football tickets that he sent to a lobbyist under investigation by the FBI, the Tallahassee Democrat, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, realized it had a much bigger story on its hands.

It had also caught the city breaking the public records act by not preserving and retaining all text messages from its employees and elected officials. The newspaper knew this because when the Democrat filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the text messages in question, the city responded that none existed.

William Hatfield

“We learned that whenever you’re filing your FOIA requests you should cast your net wide to include text messages. Because when you get your documents and you don’t get texts, then you should ask why,” said William Hatfield, Democrat editor.

The findings led to the downfall of Fernandez who eventually resigned, but more importantly it resulted in the Democrat filing a lawsuit against the city, which paved the way to modernizing how the city handles the preservation of text messages.

The lawsuit alleged Fernandez deleted text messages that showed he asked for Florida State football game tickets. The paper argued that the text messages were public record and when the city failed to produce the texts requested, it violated the public records act.

In January, the city agreed to settle the lawsuit and agreed it did violate Florida’s Public Records Act, which includes texts as public records, along with emails, faxes and other correspondence.

“There is a huge takeaway for everyone in journalism that embraces that watchdog role,” Hatfield said. “In the news business it can be rare to find what is truly a ‘smoking gun’ but that’s exactly what investigative reporters Jeff Burlew and Jeff Schweers found as they sought records that should have been public but instead were hidden and destroyed.”

Jennifer Portman

As a result of the settlement, the city of Tallahassee has implemented new policies and procedures for preserving and retaining text messages. It also has invested in software to aide with archiving of texts.

By bringing this information to light and correcting a flawed system, it reminds other newspapers this is the core of journalism.

“It’s fundamental of why we exist and what we do—to make sure the community is informed about their city. It’s a responsibility, a duty and a privilege for us,” said Jennifer Portman, Democrat news director.

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Published: March 8, 2018


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