AP Tallahassee reporter Gary Fineout started noticing how often Florida under Republican Gov. Rick Scott was losing court cases over its policies and was forced to pay opposing attorney fees. He decided to start a tally. But those fees would be just the tip of a quarter-billion-dollar iceberg. The money the state spent on private law firms to defend itself dwarfed that initial amount.
Getting that overall tally was the hard part.
"[It would] entail an exhaustive search of documents." — spokesman for Florida attorney general Pam Biondi
When Gary asked what was spent on outside legal counsel during Scott’s half-dozen years in office, the state attorney general told him: “We do not have that information." She went on to say that state officials are "unaware of a way to capture expenditures for the purchase of outside legal services that would not entail an exhaustive search of documents.”
So, Gary set out to search through the documents himself.
He went agency by agency, document by document, and, when necessary, lodged public records requests. After months of work, he had the numbers: $237 million in fees on the state side, $16 million for opposing sides — for an overall total of $253 million spent on private lawyers by the state. This was spent despite the state having 450 in-house lawyers. And this was an expenditure never explicitly allocated by the legislature and never announced by the state government. The $41 million spent over the past 18 months on a continuing case against Georgia over water rights included money for a prestigious firm whose lawyers charged up to $825 an hour.
Consulting other statehouse reporters, he and his editors found it's not unusual for states to hire outside law firms to litigate important cases, but that Florida's expenditures were extreme — especially for an administration that prided itself on cutting costs.
Lawmakers and government watchdogs in Florida who were shown the figures reacted with comments like “Insane,” and that’s “a gosh lot of money.”
The story drew extraordinary engagement, prompted editorials and swiftly entered Florida’s political discourse.
"Well, the AP did that work — on behalf of the taxpayers who pay these bills — because your elected officials didn’t." — Orlando Sentinel
A columnist for the Orlando Sentinel cited Gary's work under the heading "Journalism matters" and paraphrased the attorney general as saying "We don’t know, and it seems like it’d take a lot of work to find out.” The columnist added: “Well, the AP did that work — on behalf of the taxpayers who pay these bills — because your elected officials didn’t." Other newspapers called for new transparency in the state’s expenditures.
AP’s South news director Ravi Nessman said it was “really one of my favorite recent stories. We broke news and really set the debate in Florida, AND people across the world were interested in just great shoe leather statehouse reporting.”
For his tenacious digging to bring to light a huge chunk of opaque spending and hold state leaders to account, Gary wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.