- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida Gov. Rick Scott is defending the use of taxpayer money to pay a hefty legal settlement, but there are questions about whether his administration was transparent in how it got the money.

State officials last week paid $700,000 to Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews to settle seven lawsuits. The lawsuits contended that Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and other officials flouted Florida’s public records law. The settlement is believed to be one of the larger payments ever approved in an open government case in Florida history.

The Scott administration said it is legitimate to have taxpayers pay to settle the lawsuits because they arose out of the governor’s “public duties.”

“Steven Andrews sued multiple state agencies in multiple suits,” said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott. “Florida law has long recognized that public agencies are entitled to have attorney’s fees covered for actions arising from public duties.”

But documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the Scott administration paid $120,000 of the settlement out of an account used for office expenses and operations. They got legislative approval for the account weeks before the settlement was finalized, and the paperwork used on a budget amendment submitted to the Legislature does not mention the settlement.

Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate budget chief, said he did not have a problem with using taxpayer money for the settlement. But he said the governor’s office should have been clear about what they planned to do with the money.

“It’s appropriate for settlement dollars to be paid by the state, but it does appear the proper process was not followed,” said Lee, a Brandon Republican.

The settlement ended a long-running dispute between Scott and Andrews, who has been a persistent critic of the governor. The battle started initially over a tract of land near the governor’s mansion the state wanted to acquire, but it broadened into several lawsuits that accused Scott, two state agencies and Bondi of ignoring public records requests.

Scott lost a bid to block Andrews from trying to get information about private email accounts. Then late last year Scott turned over nearly 200 pages of emails to The Associated Press that showed he had used a private account to discuss state business. Andrews was allowed to cite the emails as evidence against the governor.

The final settlement included payments from several agencies including the Department of Environmental Protection, which paid $445,000. DEP was involved because it oversees the state’s land purchases. But DEP as well as two other agencies took their settlement portion out of budget accounts especially set aside for legal expenses.

The settlement amount, however, doesn’t cover all the costs surrounding the litigation. State records show that the governor’s office has also spent nearly $100,000 to hire outside lawyers to defend the governor and former top aides.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fineout

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