TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Several current and former officials working for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and the state’s law enforcement agency could be questioned about a behind-the-scenes fight to keep the governor’s travel records from being turned over to The Washington Post.
Court records in a lawsuit filed by the Post against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show that lawyers representing the publication want to depose up to 10 people, including two former top staffers who were pushed out of the agency.
The Post’s move to question the aides has drawn an angry denunciation from the outside lawyers hired to represent the agency who contend that the news organization wants to generate “headlines” and “smear” DeSantis and his administration.
The bitter dispute will be settled by state Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey, who pushed back a previously scheduled hearing on the original lawsuit to April and instead will hold a hearing in late February over whether the Washington Post will be able to depose the current and former officials.
If the judge allows the depositions to go ahead, it could expose the lengths that the DeSantis administration went to to shield records from public view while the Republican governor was campaigning for president.
Some of the people the Post wants to question include the former chief of staff at FDLE, as well as a former deputy chief of staff, who says she was fired after she sought whistleblower status. The lawyers also want to question Alex Kelly, who was the governor’s interim chief of staff for several months as DeSantis unsuccessfully campaigned for president.
The legal tug-of-war between the Post and the DeSantis administration began last summer when the news organization sued over four separate public record requests, including a request for records dealing with DeSantis’ publicly-funded travel. Right before DeSantis began his run for president, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature passed a law that shielded the governor’s travel records from public access, including those about trips he had already taken.
The state cited the new law while denying some of the Post’s record requests, a move that sparked the news organization to assert that the travel records exemption was overly broad and violated Florida’s constitution. Florida voters in 1992 passed a “Sunshine amendment” that guarantees the public’s access to government records and open meetings.
The News Service of Florida then reported in early December about turmoil that had occurred in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement over the records.
Patricia Carpenter, who was deputy of chief of staff at the agency, on November 28 sent an email to FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass that mentioned a heated discussion between agency employees and the governor’s office over the new law. Carpenter’s email says that during the meeting — which she did not attend in person but learned about from FDLE's then chief of staff — the governor’s office staff said not to release any records and instead require news outlets to sue the administration, according to documents filed in the lawsuit.
Carpenter’s email asserts that afterwards, agency general counsel Janine Robinson was denied a promotion and raise because she disagreed with the governor’s office over what records should be made public.
The email, which was included in an updated version of the Post’s lawsuit filed last month, said that Anastasios Kamoutsas, a deputy chief of staff for DeSantis, called Shane Desguin, chief of staff for FDLE, and told him not to promote Robinson.
“During the phone call from Kamoutsas … COS Desguin asked why and was told that Janine ‘is not on our team,’” Carpenter wrote in the email. “COS Desguin then asked if he could give her another position and increase and was told ‘no, she is lucky she even has a fucking job.’”
Carpenter was subsequently fired and the News Service reported that Desguin was forced to retire in the aftermath. Both FDLE and a spokesperson for DeSantis told News Service of Florida at the time that Carpenter was fired for multiple reasons including creating a “hostile work environment.”
The lawyers representing the Post have sought to depose Robinson, Carpenter and Desguin as well as aides from the governor’s office who were present for the heated discussion over the records.
A spokesperson for the Post declined to comment on the ongoing litigation as did a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A lawyer representing both Carpenter and Desguin did not return a request for comment.
In a filing made earlier this month lawyers for the Gunster law firm — who are now representing FDLE in the litigation — blasted the deposition requests and said they had no real bearing on the legal issues behind the case.
They contend that the deposition requests amounted to “harassment” and some of the top officials were shielded by law from having to sit for a deposition. The motion also called the Post “antagonistic” to both FDLE and the governor’s office.
“The numerous depositions and document productions sought by the Post make clear its intent to use this lawsuit to generate headlines and stories to smear FDLE and other is in the current administration,” states the request to quash the subpoenas.