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DeSantis staffers blocked release of travel records, whistleblower says

When top aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met with state law enforcement agency officials about two months ago to discuss a lawsuit seeking the release of the governor’s flight records, the conversation quickly turned heated.

Two Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials argued that some records should be released, but DeSantis’s aides overruled them, citing a new state law that restricts access to his travel records, according to an FDLE staffer briefed on the meeting.

That dispute — as described by FDLE deputy chief of staff Patricia Carpenter in a recent email to the agency’s chief — escalated into a major battle over the new law limiting disclosure of DeSantis’s travel activities and information about his state taxpayer-funded security detail as he crisscrosses the country seeking the GOP presidential nomination. The FDLE is tasked with protecting and transporting the governor and maintaining his travel records.

In the weeks after the tense meeting, DeSantis staffers blocked a promotion for an FDLE attorney who favored turning over the records. Carpenter, the agency’s deputy, filed a whistleblower complaint, and she and FDLE chief of staff Shane Desguin were pushed out of the agency, according to Carpenter’s email.

The shake-up is the latest example of what many former FDLE staffers have portrayed as potentially dangerous overreach by the governor’s office. They say the office has interfered with a statewide police department that is supposed to operate as nonpartisan and independent, but which has been drawn into DeSantis’s political agenda to crack down on illegal immigrants and ineligible voters.

“It is appalling that the highest ranking official in Florida, the governor, is blocking access to important records that the public has a right to and needs to see,” said attorney Marie Mattox, who is representing Desguin and Carpenter. She described their ousters as “an egregious violation of the public whistleblower law.”

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plesinger said Carpenter’s whistleblower claim was denied by the agency’s inspector general because it did not meet state standards. Plesinger accused Carpenter and Desguin of insubordination, mismanagement of state funds and other policy violations, but did not provide details.

“These allegations are completely false,” Plesinger added in an email, which called Carpenter and Desguin “desperate individuals whose unethical behavior in the office continues to raise significant questions.”

The governor’s office did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment. DeSantis’s spokesman Jeremy Redfern disputed Carpenter’s account, the News Service of Florida reported last week. “The governor’s office has received multiple complaints of this employee creating a hostile work environment,” he said.

At stake in the alleged feud inside the DeSantis administration is the scope of the new law in a state with a long tradition of public access to official records and meetings. DeSantis signed the travel records exemption shortly before he launched his presidential campaign and at a time when his airplane travel — and the FDLE’s costs to protect him — were surging. The Post is suing the FDLE for the travel records and arguing that the law violates the state’s constitution.

“The significance of this lawsuit is hugely important to the future of open government,” said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “The travel records exemption that is being challenged was the biggest blow to open government that I’ve seen in 35 years of doing this work.”

In response to The Post lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court, the FDLE initially argued that it is doing everything it can to respond to demands for records amid a staff shortage and a deluge of requests from news media outlets.

But Carpenter’s email depicts a previously untold disagreement between the agency and the governor’s office at a politically sensitive time when DeSantis’s presidential bid is losing ground.

“We have a sitting governor running for president and trying to avoid scrutiny … it’s deeply troubling,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who opposed the new law. “It was never totally clear what the law did and did not cover, and it looks like the governor’s office is making the broadest possible interpretation.”

Rep. Jeff Holcomb, a Republican who sponsored the legislation, said he was unaware of confusion over the law. He said it was intended to prevent someone from constructing a “security profile” of the governor’s activities, but said that it was not intended to keep basic information about the governor’s travel schedule, and the costs, secret. The law applies to future and past trips.

“The law balances security and the public’s right to know,” Holcomb said.

This account of the fallout over the travel records law is based on interviews with Mattox, court filings in The Post lawsuit, and Carpenter’s Nov. 28 email to FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass.

The FDLE attorney who reportedly favored turning over records and was denied a promotion, Janine Robinson, did not respond to requests for comment.

When the law was passed in May, DeSantis was widely viewed as the strongest GOP challenger to former president Donald Trump. Republican supermajorities in the Florida House and Senate were delivering on the governor’s policy agenda and on other measures that Democrats said were greasing the wheels for his White House bid. Almost $4 million was added to the FDLE’s budget for protecting the governor and his family as he regularly traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting primary states.

On April 30, Desguin and Robinson met with DeSantis staffers to hash out which travel records could be released under the new law. Desguin’s takeaway was that some of DeSantis’s records would remain public, according to Mattox.

“Does this conceal everything? Answer is no,” Desguin wrote down, she said.

The Post sued the FDLE in July, citing an “unjustified and ongoing delay” in responding to four requests, including one in April asking for records of airplane travel by the governor and people accompanying him dating to January 2019. A Post spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In an August court filing, Robinson disputed that the agency was dragging its feet. The department processes public records requests in the order in which they are received, she said, and thousands come in every year. Robinson said the agency’s “finite staff is charged with the daunting task to process a gargantuan volume of requests.”

At a Sept. 13 hearing before Leon County Circuit Judge Angela C. Dempsey, Robinson hinted at the pressure she was under.

“It is a no-win situation for either the agency or the requester, but we cannot be accused of sitting on our hands, ignoring requests,” she said. “We are doing everything we can and then some to comply. We cannot make everybody happy. I hear this every single day.”

The next day, Dempsey ordered the FDLE to respond to The Post’s request for travel records, giving the agency a deadline of Oct. 13 to make a decision. Two weeks later, Robinson told The Post in an email that the agency was preparing a detailed spreadsheet containing the governor’s destinations, plane tail numbers, the costs and purpose of the trip, and the number of people traveling.

But before the court deadline, Robinson met with two DeSantis advisers. The conversation grew contentious, and Robinson asked Desguin to join the meeting. He later briefed Carpenter on the meeting, according to her email.

DeSantis’s staff favored stonewalling The Post, withholding the documents and taking a chance in court, which they thought would be “friendly,” according to the email. Earlier this year, Dempsey ruled that the governor can withhold information from the public on the basis of “executive privilege” — a decision that critics say is unsupported by prior Florida law, and is being appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Robinson argued that she and Desguin had helped draft the travel records exemption, and the intent was not to keep all information hidden from the public. She was “extremely upset” and had already alerted news organizations that records were coming, Carpenter’s email said.

After the meeting, DeSantis’s staff lashed out, according to Carpenter’s account. In a call to Desguin, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Anastasios Kamoutsas, told him to deny a pending raise and promotion request for Robinson because she “is not on our team.” When Desguin asked whether he could give her another position, he was told, “No, she is lucky she even has a f—ing job.”

The FDLE never delivered the spreadsheet Robinson said the agency was preparing for The Post. One day before the Oct. 13 deadline, Robinson filed a notice in court asserting that the FDLE had complied with the judge’s order by releasing the annual costs of protecting the governor and his family. Additional travel information was exempt from disclosure under the new law, she argued.

Two weeks later, The Post pushed back with a new argument: The law is overly broad and unconstitutional.

“The exemption sweeps from public view every record relating in any way to the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, including the most basic information needed to inform the public about what those services are for, when they were provided, who received them, and why,” the court filing states. “And it does so regardless of whether a given public record implicates the stated security concerns purportedly justifying the exemption’s passage.”

Meanwhile, the turmoil inside the FDLE continued. Dismayed about the denial of Robinson’s promotion and raise, Carpenter appealed to human resources officials in a Nov. 9 email. Less than 30 minutes later, Desguin received a phone call from the governor’s chief of staff. Carpenter wrote in her email that she could overhear the conversation, in which Desguin was instructed again to retract the recommendation for the promotion.

A few hours later, Carpenter and Desguin were placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the building. Carpenter said an FDLE official told her they were suspended because of the email about promoting Robinson.

More than a week later, Desguin was told by a top FDLE official that he could retire or be dismissed, according to Mattox. After 20 years with the agency, he chose retirement.

“Based on the above facts, I am asking for protection as a whistle blower under Florida law,” Carpenter wrote in the Nov. 28 email to Glass, the FDLE commissioner appointed by DeSantis last year. She said Robinson was “being retaliated against for arguing over what FDLE was being asked to do with public records by the (governor’s office) and I could not allow this to occur or be a part of this.”

Three days later, Carpenter was fired.

In what she described as continued signs of retaliation, Mattox said Carpenter and Desguin have been unable to retrieve their belongings from the office, while colleagues have been told not to have any contact with them. Mattox said she filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations — a first step before filing a lawsuit — on behalf of Desguin on Dec. 1 and expects to file a similar claim for Carpenter this week.

A court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 10 on The Post’s demands for the governor’s travel records.

Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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