With Jeff Ashton refusing to investigate & charge known public records destroyer Teresa Jacobs, the First Amendment Foundation steps in to hold county officials accountable with Organize Now?
By Jacob Engels
Several weeks ago, Organize Now – a group that was behind the failed 2012 “sick pay” initiative asked State Attorney Jeff Ashton to launch an investigation into whether or not Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs was using the file-sharing service Dropbox to hide public records from the public – which would violate Florida law if she was. Yesterday, Ashton declined to investigate or prosecute the matter – giving Orangize Now & the First Amendment Foundation the opening to file suit.
Before you can fully understand the atmosphere surrounding the latest in the Dropbox scandal, let us bring you up to speed.
It was just last year that Mayor Jacobs and several Orange County Commissioners were found guilty of violating sunshine laws when they deleted text messages between themselves and lobbyists ahead of the controversial sick-time vote. With Dropbox and other similar cloud based file-sharing services, you must have an account and sometimes a password to access uploaded documents.
According to a report from WESH News on September 4th, there are emails in existence from former top Jacobs adviser & former Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas proving the existence of a Dropbox account being used by the county. Those emails communiques took place in 2012, suggesting that Mayor Jacobs & her inner circle have been using Dropbox to house county documents for almost 2 years. It’s with this and other supporting documents that Organize Now filed a complaint with Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie earlier this month, asking her to audit Jacobs mysterious Dropbox account. Stephanie Porta, the leader of Orangize Now is concerned that the Mayor is using the tool to skirt public records request and possibly giving access to non-county employees – like lobbyists who have business before the county. Haynie punted to State Attorney Jeff Ashton, arguing that the fact that laws could have been broken place the matter in the hands of the County’s top prosecutor. Porta is concerned the Mayor is keeping a second set of books.
You should remember that one of Mayor Jacob’s top confidantes is lobbyist and GOP political hand John Dowless. Mr. Dowless has been the lead consultant for Mayor Jacob’s re-election campaigns and serve as her conduit to the political elite & donor class locally. Does John Dowless have access to the Dropbox and is he in turn sharing county documents and business with other lobbyists, special interests, and business leaders who have business before the county? Is he trading favors & collecting IOU’s because of his proximity to the Mayor? One has to wonder.
The First Amendment Foundation said no public official can use file-sharing systems to temporarily keep records from public view. “At the point it is created and shared, it becomes a public record, so if they are putting it in Dropbox, it’s a public record,” said Barbara Peterson, with the First Amendment Foundation.
Several weeks ago, a defiant Jacobs told WESH’s Greg Fox that she welcomes an investigation, claiming nothing illegal has occurred when asked earlier this month. “I welcome an investigation. I do think it is a waste of the State Attorney’s time without any claim or any basis for a claim. But I welcome it because I would really like to put this issue to rest,” Jacobs said. “There is no proof of it, there will be no proof of it, because it’s totally baseless.”
So, we are supposed to just takes the Mayor’s word right? Even though she has been found guilty of destroying and hiding public records before, paying a $500 fine just last year to settle the matter and avoid prosecution. That’s some pretty shaky ground you are standing on Mayor, but there is a reason she felt so confident. The one piece of commentary largely missing from the news coverage in the past few weeks about this issue is the often whispered about Machiavellian alliance that insiders claim has been forged between the Mayor and State Attorney.
The deal is allegedly somewhere along these lines, or so we hear.
The Mayor and her top confidante/lobbyist John Dowless went to the newly elected Ashton shortly after he became State Attorney and offered a bi-partisan detente. If Ashton would use his position as State Attorney to pressure/prosecute the Mayor’s foes on the Expressway Authority, then she would use her influence within the GOP to make sure no credible Republican candidates would surface in the next election cycle. She also made sure Ashton knew how electorally beneficial this agreement would seem to voters, a Republican Mayor cleaning up her own party and a Democratic corruption busting State Attorney getting to claim a few Republican pelts to show off to his parties base.
And so a partnership was forged, with Ashton seemingly fulfilling his duties thus far. He’s indicted every major opponent off the Mayor on the Expressway Board, and even gone after private citizens for violations of open meeting laws – a charge that cannot & has not been legally applied to a private citizen in the 30+ years since Florida sunshine laws went into effect. Corruption busting State Attorney he has become….at least it seems to some, but to others he is viewed as a power drunk State Attorney using the county office to score cheap political points while ignoring legal precedent.
When the public outrage over the sick-time debacle peaked, where Jacobs was caught texting lobbyists & then subsequently destroying those texts, Ashton opted for a slap on the wrist as to not anger his partner. He gets to look like he stomped out corruption, even in the Mayor’s office. Teresa & her allies get off with a $500 fine. The detente remained.
Now, with these new charges aimed at Mayor Jacobs and her top advisors, Ashton was put in between a rock & a hard place. Does he renege again on his alleged deal with Mayor Jacobs which has benefited both of them, and go in for the political “killshot” – raising his political capital and power within the county – or does he bury the matter/slap her on the wrist in fear of biting the hand that feeds?
Yesterday, we received that answer. Ashton declined to investigate or prosecute, ignoring evidence that potentially shows the Mayor, her top advisors (John Dowless), and numerous county employees deleting Dropbox files following public records requests made for said information – something an innocent party would not do.
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post & Seminole County Post. He is a seasoned political operative who has led numerous statewide political groups and has worked on several high-profile local, statewide, and national races. Jacob has been interviewed on national television & radio programs, with his work having been featured in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications nationwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.