Should Dean Open His Records as Governor? He Would Have to If He Had Been Governor of Florida

Steve Bousquet, writing in the St. Petersburg Times (Jan. 12, 2004):

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is keeping many items locked away, but Florida leaders must face greater scrutiny.

As Howard Dean emerges as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president, his record as governor of Vermont is attracting plenty of attention from his opponents.

But a sizable chunk of that record is under lock and key in a warehouse near Montpelier .

Dean ordered dozens of boxes of his records sealed for 10 years, citing Vermont 's executive privilege law. His Democratic opponents have accused him of hiding information that could provide insight into his ability to govern.

In Florida , the rules are different.

If retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham emerges as a possible vice presidential running mate for Dean or another Democrat, opponents will be able to visit the state archives and sift through a mountain of public records from his eight years as governor....

If Gov. Jeb Bush gets the urge to run for president in 2008, as some Republicans hope, his two terms in Tallahassee also would be an open book.

Florida has broader open records laws than Vermont , and a governor in Florida does not have the power to keep records confidential after leaving office.

"All records are open unless there is a specific statutory exemption," said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. "A governor can't say, "I want to keep this confidential."' ...

"Governors seal records for particular amounts of time - in my case, some of the records - to protect people's privacy, to protect the privacy that was given to advisers," Dean said during a Jan. 4 debate in Iowa sponsored by the Des Moines Register.

As examples, Dean cited letters from people who wrote to him during the controversy over civil unions in Vermont .

"I think if somebody is gay and they wrote me that, and they don't care to have that information disclosed to the public, that's their right," Dean said.

In Florida , a similar letter to the governor would be a public record.

But with Dean riding high in the polls, and reporters burrowing into his past for evidence of flip-flops or sweetheart deals, Dean's decision has become a political problem.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said Dean's unwillingness to open the records undercuts his criticism of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, "who have run the most secretive administration in history."

"You are ducking the question," Lieberman told Dean in the debate. "You should not force a judge to force you to do what you know is right, and which will assure public confidence."

Even the term "executive privilege" carries a sinister connotation, three decades after Richard Nixon employed the term to deny release of the infamous White House tapes during the Watergate scandal.

Florida's most notorious case of sealed records involved the so-called Johns Committee, which gained a reputation for witch hunts as it probed for evidence of homosexuality, communism and support for civil rights at state universities in the 1950s. Those records stayed under control of the state Senate until 1992, when voters approved a constitutional amendment that required the files to be opened.

Told of Vermont 's "executive privilege" law, Gov. Jeb Bush smiled and said: "Like Nixon. We don't have that here. I know that for a fact. There are times when I wish we did, probably."

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