Sometimes “sunshine” only peeks through clouds

It is “Sunshine Week 2017” in Florida, when Historic City News reporters and journalists across the state celebrate the public’s right to know what our government, appointed staff, and elected officials are up to.

As citizens, we enjoy the right to attend open meetings, and have access to responsive documents based on our public records requests, unless the documents are specifically exempted by state statute. Even if they contain some confidential information, like a person’s social security number or medical information, those limited items can be redacted and you are still entitled to inspect the remainder.

Records of the operation of our government belong to the people and not the custodians who maintain them. Individuals who serve in those roles must be reminded that not only is transparency in government desirable, in this state it is the law.

The Florida Constitution, specifically Article 24, gives the public Access to Public Records and Meetings and §119 Florida Statutes codifies the obligations of government employees and elected officials to abide by them — including the establishment of penalties when they do not.

But what about records that aren’t public? Is it fair to assume that every document, electronic or written, that memorializes a public transaction with state or local government in Florida is open to public inspection?

There are about 3,000 exemptions, per the Florida First Amendment Foundation, for specific documents and elements of information on others that the legislature has determined cause more-harm-than-good to release.

After the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt in February 2001, and the successful legal battle by Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, the viewing, copying, listening to or other handling of a photograph or video or audio recording of an autopsy is prohibited without a court order or the consent of the next-of-kin under Florida’s Earnhardt Family Protection Act.

And the Act has teeth. §406.135(6)(a), F.S. provides that any custodian of a photograph or video or audio recording of an autopsy who willfully and knowingly violates this section commits a felony of the third degree.

Oops! We just received confirmation that a three-member blue ribbon panel of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission confirmed probable cause that St Johns County’s District 23 Medical Examiner, Dr Predrag Bulic, violated §406.135, F.S., which states that only the legal next of kin may view autopsy photos unless permission is given by allowing a staff member to provide autopsy photographs of Michelle O’Connell to Clu Wright who was not the legal next-of-kin and did not have the permission of the legal next-of-kin to view the autopsy photographs.

The same Probable Cause Panel found that, in the same case, Dr. Bulic violated §406.13 F.S., Rule 11G-2.005, (d), (e), and (f) of the Florida Administrative Code, and Practice Guidelines Article 8, by failing to have a clear policy in place to dissuade employee’s failure to have the complete notes and the investigative report of the autopsy of Michelle O’Connell in the files maintained within the medical examiner’s office.

Possibly more troubling is that Dr. Bulic was apparently unaware that the file for Michelle O’Connell’s death investigation, the one that was used in the medical examiner’s office by two State Attorneys, was in fact an incomplete file.

Particularly frightening is that the original death certificate listing cause of death as “suicide” was changed to “homicide” by the medical doctor who originally signed it — Dr. Frederick Hobin. Instead, the amended autopsy findings, and an amended death certificate, was in Hobin’s custody at his home.

If it were not for Florida’s constitutionally protected access to public information, we could not have reported this to you.

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