The Florida Public Service Commission is refusing to release telephone records of its members involving calls it says are private, despite a court ruling that all such records are public.
The telephone records are important because WUFT News is investigating whether commission members have been unduly influenced by the industries they regulate — and whether favoritism has affected the electricity bills Floridians pay.
The Public Service Commission insists that phone calls it deems private are not subject to the state’s sunshine laws requiring government agencies to conduct their business in public.
However, the Florida 7th Circuit Court ruled in 2010 that even private phone calls made by public officials on publicly provided cellphones are public record.
That ruling was cited by the Florida First Amendment Foundation, which upon a request from WUFT News, sent a letter to the Public Service Commission on Thursday declaring its reluctance to release phone records “legally invalid”
Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth wrote in an opinion that records of phone calls made on “equipment owned or leased by” state agencies are subject to disclosure, even when “the costs of the personal telephone calls are being reimbursed.”
On Feb. 14, WUFT requested billing records associated with the state-owned cellphones of Public Service Commissioner Lisa Edgar and her chief aide Roberta Bass. Both Edgar and Bass — under the guidance of Curt Kiser, general counsel for the commission — labeled calls as “personal” on the phone records, which the clerk’s office then redacted.
Kiser has not returned messages from Thursday afternoon and Friday morning for comment.
At the time of the initial request, he responded via email:
“The Florida Public Service Commission does not provide information concerning employees’ personal telephone calls because personal telephone calls do not meet the definition of ‘public record’ and for that reason are not subject to disclosure.”
This is not the first time the commission has been challenged for redacting personal calls. In September 2010, the Sun Sentinel printed a public records request from an anonymous resident asking for the cellphone records of multiple PSC commissioners and staff members, including Roberta Bass.
Eventually, commission released the un-redacted records after pressure from open government advocates. Kiser said Bass agreed to release the personal calls, even though the commission’s interpretation of the Public Records Act did not require her to do so.