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Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott.
Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott. / Todd Stubing/news-press.com

About Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

Sunshine Week was launched by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 and now includes the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. This nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative is celebrated in mid-March each year to coincide with James Madison’s birthday March 16.
Some government agencies do better than others.

On Thursday, Lee County earned a 2012 A+ Sunny Award for its website, lee-county.com, from the Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization dedicated to government transparency.

Lee was one of 214 winners nationwide among 6,000 local governments, one of only six counties in Florida and the only one in Southwest Florida. The county’s website also won an A-plus rating in 2011.

“This A-plus rating reflects our ongoing commitment to making Lee County’s website as user friendly as possible,” said Lee County Manager Karen Hawes. “We will continue to look for ways to improve the process of providing Lee County records and information to the public in an easily accessible format.”

Unfortunately, the Florida House of Representatives refused to take up Senate Bill 206 to give the public the right to speak at public board or commission meetings. The state Senate had unanimously passed it Feb. 14. Three House committees passed a companion bill, but leaders refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote before the end of the legislative session Friday.

— Source: SunshineWeek.org, Lee County, The News-Press

Sheriff Scott’s new media policy


Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a Feb. 29 email copied to Publisher Mei-Mei Chan and Executive Editor Terry Eberle in which Sheriff Mike Scott explained his new restrictive media policy.


Effective immediately you will communicate to your respective commands that there will be no interviews henceforth between the News-Press and any member of the Sheriff’s Office including me. By copying Mei-Mei Chan and Terry Eberle on this message, I can only assume that they will communicate same to their staff.
Effective immediately the morning briefings in PIO are suspended until further notice and all media will be required to schedule appointments to review reports, etc. Strict adherence to F.S. 119 will be the rule of the day for all media outlets. All requests for interviews and/or comments will be forwarded to me, and I will provide direction on a case by case basis.
I am asking that Lt. King draft a notice to all media outlets and forward same to me prior to sending it out so that I can add my brief regrets that all will once again suffer due to the News-Press and its inability or unwillingness to afford us the courtesy and respect we deserve.

They say timing is everything in life and Ms. (reporter Marisa) Kendall’s decision to call me this evening in the middle of the Lehigh event is a perfect example of why I am taking immediate action.

Thank you in advance and please contact me if you are unclear about anything at all relative to this direction.
Mike

Contact him

Let Sheriff Mike Scott know your views. His official sheriff’s office email address is MScott@sheriffleefl.org. The main office line for the sheriff’s office is 477-1000 and the public information line is 477-1340.

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Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott’s apparent obsession with a nonexistent feud with The News-Press has clouded his judgment.

On Feb. 29, Scott declared an end to daily public briefings for all media, denied The News-Press the opportunity to ask questions of him and his officers, and stated that there would be “no interviews henceforth between The News-Press and any member of the sheriff’s office including me.”

This act is not only childish, it is an abuse of the power of his office, and a violation of the public’s right to know.

Florida has the broadest open-records and open-government access laws in the country, something all of us can be proud of.

By shutting out the media, Scott cuts out the conduit to the public that takes time to review and analyze public records, reports on successes and mistakes, and lets residents know how their employees are performing and how their taxpayer money is being spent.

While Scott is generally popular, underneath that affable public face is a sometimes angry man whose control comes from bullying, intimidation and punishment of his critics.

It is no surprise that lower-ranking officers — deputies, corporals and sergeants — have unionized.

It is no surprise that his former Chief Deputy Charles Ferrante and his brother, former Capt. Dominick Ferrante — who had tried to investigate a good friend of the sheriff — were pushed out of the sheriff’s office by Scott unceremoniously and have become vocal critics.

It is no surprise that former sheriff’s Lt. Lee Bushong and current sheriff’s Sgt. Timothy Fischer are challenging Scott in the Aug. 14 primary and criticizing Scott’s management style and decisions.

However, we have no doubt, were the 2012 election today, Scott would win.

He defeated his last primary opponent in 2008 with 91 percent of the vote and his general election opponent with 75 percent.

Scott has raised $167,745, according to the most recent data available on the Lee County Supervisor of Elections website. That is more than 16 times that of his nearest Republican primary rival.

(Page 2 of 5)

By many accounts, Scott is the best sheriff we’ve had in many years. He has confidence and a healthy ego, which is to be expected and can be invaluable in doing a difficult and sometimes dangerous job.

But people are people: If Scott responds to The News-Press with vindictive attacks, how does he handle criticism from others, including his own staff, his constituents and the general public?

The News-Press speaks from a position with some power. We wonder how roughshod Scott is over critics who are without power or influence.

The good, the bad

The media’s relationship with a public official can sometimes be tense and uncomfortable.

The best officials embrace transparency, and will tackle the toughest questions. Effective officials work with the media to make sure the functions of their offices are explained clearly and fairly to the public, and to overcome any misconceptions. When there is a problem, they engage in polite conversation to work out the issue. They see a main function of their office as reporting to their bosses — the public — and recognize the media as a primary vehicle to do this.

Scott has repeatedly demonstrated disrespectful disregard for civil discourse on any subject not to his liking.

Scott was a corporal and media personality who handily defeated incumbent Sheriff Rod Shoap in 2004. The News-Press endorsed Shoap in 2004, but Scott in 2008.

As with any public official or entity, The News-Press strives to cover issues and events, both good and bad. We are supportive of law enforcement, aware of the dangers of work in that field, and respectful of those who put their lives on the line for us.

We have lauded Scott when he has investigated and fired those within the department who break the law or policy.

We have celebrated the achievements of his deputies.

We reported on the honor he received of being accepted into and graduating from the FBI Academy in 2010 and being selected as graduating class speaker.

But Scott has focused his attention on a handful of hard-hitting stories and to which he continues to issue with ongoing retaliatory responses, including:

(Page 3 of 5)

The sheriff’s ongoing friendship with Dick Spence of Alva, a convicted felon, a kidnapper and money launderer for the ruthless Cali, Colombia, drug cartel. Spence was convicted in 1995 and served three years in prison. He and Scott had extensive phone calls for years. When The News-Press exposed this relationship in 2009, the two stopped talking for a short time, but we learned the conversations resumed even into 2011.

Spending more than $200,000 of money seized from drug busts to air public-service announcements about a variety of public-safety issues — six times the amount he spent the year before. This was a thinly veiled use of public funds for personal promotion by the sheriff.

Active or settled lawsuits, most recently, Fred Herman Kobie III filing a $2 million lawsuit against the sheriff’s office. Kobie argues that officers violated his constitutional rights by falsely arresting him. He spent six months in jail and he claims there was no evidence to support the accusations against him, including grand theft and owning a chop shop. A call by a News-Press reporter to the sheriff for comment on this case prompted Scott’s new, restrictive public-access policy.

Accusations that Lee County Jail officials caused the death of Nick Christie by restraining and pepper-spraying him 10 times over a 48-hour period.

The incident that had previously inflamed Scott the most was a headline in The News-Press on Feb. 17, 2009, about a deputy fatally shooting a man who was deemed to be a threat: “Questions arise after deputy kills ‘good guy.’”

The News-Press quoted the family in that headline, but inadvertently and inappropriately cast a negative light on the deputy. Relationships between The News-Press and Scott grew more and more strained, to the point that Scott responded only through email.

Almost 18 months later, the sheriff met with Publisher and President Mei-Mei Chan and Executive Editor Terry Eberle.

They agreed that Eberle would write a public apology in an Oct. 17, 2010, column, which would then resolve their differences.

(Page 4 of 5)

The News-Press makes mistakes. When we do, we take responsibility for those errors and strive to learn and improve.

There can be valid differences in opinion on coverage, but we have been consistently honest in our attempts and commitment to be fair and accurate. Seldom has Scott accused us of inaccuracy.

However, Scott still seethes over that 2009 headline and brought it up again last week as part of the case he has built over the years to shut out The News-Press.

Cyber-bully

We have had an open-door relationship with Scott, and over the last two years we have invited him to talk in person to us about issues and concerns at any time — he has declined all but one time.

Since he was first elected in 2004, our archives indicate we have published 19 guest opinion columns from Scott, many critical of us and our reporters.

Scott has no reservations about sharing his sarcastic views with the world using his public email and office. He uses his “cyber-bully” pulpit to attack, and has sent demeaning insults to News-Press reporters, Chan, Eberle and local columnist Sam Cook.

In December, Scott sent an email to about 1,600 employees about Cook’s arrest 27 years ago on a DUI charge.

Cook owned up to his background in a column shortly after.

Cook explained that he had taken responsibility, pleaded guilty, completed a 2.5-year probation and, thus, avoided a felony conviction.

Often, the sheriff’s Joe McCarthy-like attacks rely on sarcastic name-calling rather than civil arguments of facts. Scott refers to Sam Cook repeatedly as “Larry the Fable Guy,” (referring to Cook’s given name). He seeks to condemn the News-Press by calling it “liberal.”

Scott famously campaigned for the McCain-Palin GOP presidential ticket in 2008 and caused a stir at vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s rally in Estero when he addressed the future president as “Barack Hussein Obama” — which had been a well known slight critics used to link Obama to Islamists in the mind of the public.

The News-Press published Scott’s press release as an op-ed on Oct. 9, 2008, in which he said he intended no malice and used the candidate’s full name “because I wanted to.”

(Page 5 of 5)

Shut out

On the two occasions where Scott has shut out The News-Press, the first direct target happened to be a young journalist doing her job.

Rachel Revehl was the police reporter who helped break the stories about Scott and Spence in 2009.

On Nov. 18, 2009, Scott refused to comment to her about deputies failing in their first attempt to unionize. He made a very public — and televised — scene insisting he would not speak to her and took other members of the media to another part of the sheriff’s offices to give them a comment, excluding Revehl.

The incident Feb. 29 that caused Scott to end all daily public briefings involved reporter Marisa Kendall calling him on his cellphone, asking for a comment for her story.

This is a cellphone paid for by taxpayer dollars and a number he freely gave to the media.

It seems he felt Kendall did not get the hint that a public information officer had already declined comment about Fred Kobie III’s lawsuit against the sheriff’s office. But instead of just saying no comment, or saying he was busy, Scott apparently decided that call was the last straw.

Access limited

On March 3, the day The News-Press reported that the sheriff had refused to answer questions from our reporters at a March 1 press conference, Scott sent an email to media outlets blaming us for the loss of privileges.

“I regret that all media outlets will suffer the loss of the aforementioned accesses and conveniences like the morning briefings; however, I am unable to sanction only The News-Press,” Scott wrote.

One statement in his email really stood out to us:

“They (The News-Press) were invited to the conference and afforded the exact same access and information as everyone else; however, (Florida Statute) 119 does not mandate that I hold Q&A sessions with individual Reporters or anyone else for that matter. You may recall our President employs the same philosophies with the FOX News Network…at least one (1) area the President and I agree on.”

Remarkably, Scott is boasting that the only thing he has in common with the president is an aversion to the public’s right to open government.

All right, Scott is angry with us and won’t talk to us.

But to order his public information officers to not talk to us or anyone is a wasteful use of his office, and drags down his whole department.

His new policy doesn’t hurt the media so much as the general public, which is denied information, and the men and women in law enforcement who are dedicated every day to making all of us safe.

We deserve more from our sheriff.

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