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The absolutely fascinating email exchange between Gov. Rick Scott’s staff and a New York Times writer

By on May 3, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott launched a new open records program Thursday dubbed “Project Sunburst,” designed to give the public — and the media — access to the emails to and from the governor and 11 top staff within seven days of writing them, reports Mary Ellen Klas.

By far, the most interesting email chain is one between Communications Director Brian Burgess and New York Times correspondent Serge Kovaleski.

It begins on April 27, when gubernatorial staffer Jackie Schutz responds to an unidentified request from Kovaleski in which he basically wanted more information on the process behind selecting a new state attorney and task force in response to the Trayvon Martin incident.  

Schutz dumps an old press release on Kovaleski and then the fireworks ensue.

From Kovaleski:

Right. I have seen this. 

For the record, what I would like to further explore with someone from the governor’s office, if not the governor himself, are things like what exactly was the conflict of interest for Mr. Wolfinger and what was the process like for the selection of Ms. Corey. We need to go beyond the press release, obviously.

Kovaleski receives no response, so he follows-up the next day:

I am resending this since I received no response from you yesterday. Sending me an old press release does not get us there. I am sure you can understand that. 

Please let me know if there is someone else in the governor’s press office that I need to contact in order to arrange for a fuller public accounting of the decision to have Mr. Wolfinger step aside and to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case.

I am available to interview somebody on this from this Tuesday through Friday, when I will be back in Sanford. But time is starting to get tight, and we are obligated to provide our readers with a response from the governor, whatever that may or may not be, in a case that has attracted broad and on-going interest.

And I continue to await even an initial response to the public records request that I sent to you.

Schutz stiff-arms him two hours later:

We have your request and our Office of Open Government is processing it. They will be contacting you with a reply.

After a couple of emails clarifying his request, Kovaleski fights off the stiff-arm attempt:

Thanks. As I mentioned, time is getting tight and we certainly need more the old press release you sent me.

Two days later, Schutz emails back to Kovaleski:

Lt Governor Jennifer Carroll can interview via phone with you on Wednesday. Does morning or afternoon work better?

Kovaleski and Schutz work out the details; Kovaleski interviews Carroll and then all hell breaks loose.

I just got off the phone with the Lt. Governor following a brief conversation with her. I am not sure why you set up this interview since she told me she could not talk about the issues I mentioned to you because she had no information.

As the record shows, I wrote to you that I wanted an elaboration on why Mr. Wolfinger was pulled off the case and what was his supposed conflict of interest. I also told you I wanted a better understanding about the decision to appoint Ms. Corey as special prosecutor and more detail about the process. The Lt. Gov. said she had no information on either matter.

Who in the administration can fully address these questions for the story?

So far, the Scott administration has responded to my questions by sending me an old press release that does not provide any answers and by directing me to the Lt. Gov., who said, for the record, that was unable to address the queries at hand because those were decisions made by the governor himself

I look forward to a substantive response.

Thank you and regards,

This is where Burgess jumps in:

Serge – Wolfinger wasn’t “pulled off the case.” He recused himself. 

Before you berate my staff, perhaps you should get your facts straight before seeking answers to questions predicated on false assumptions.   

If we can be of further assistance to you, please let me know. 

Kovaleski retorts:

Brian,

Perhaps your staff should act more responsibly. Now, who from your administration can answer the questions I have posed concerning Mr. Wolfinger and Ms. Corey?

Regards,

Serge

Burgess doesn’t care for that:

My staff worked hard to help you.  But they cannot provide answers to questions that are not grounded in reality.  

Again, if you would like to engage in fact-based civil discourse, we are happy to accommodate you.

At this point, Kovaleski finds the whole situation bizarre:

Brian,

I am in the writing stage of the story, and I still have received no answers from you or your staff regarding my questions about Mr. Wolfinger and Ms. Corey despite going back and forth with your office for days.

Your statement that your staff worked very hard to help me is bizarre and demonstrably false given that they sent me nothing more than an old press release and put me on the phone with the Lt. Gov., who said outright that she did not have any information to answer questions concerning either state attorney and the Martin/Zimmerman case.

I certainly hope that you and your staff are committed to providing The New York Times with substantive, good faith answers and that no one is engaging in any gamesmanship here.

You have received and reviewed my requests and I will now leave it to you to have the governor or another appropriate person in the administration get in touch with me to address the questions.

Short of that, I am obligated to inform our readers that no one from the Scott administration responded to numerous requests from the Times to discuss the matters that I have mentioned to you.

My numbers are below if you would like to discuss this further.

Thanks and regards,

Serge

And now it’s just a matter of who will get the last word:

Serge – If there is gamesmanship at work, it’s not coming from this office.  You submitted questions to my staff and to Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll based on assumptions that were incorrect.  I simply do not know how anyone could be expected to answer such questions in a way that would satisfy you. 

If you are writing about Mr. Wolfinger’s recusal, my advice is that you contact Mr. Wolfinger for comment, as he would be the authority on that topic. 

Further, I can’t fathom how you can suggest with a straight face that “no one from the Scott Administration responded to numerous requests from the New York Times”  to discuss these matters, when this very email chain and your interview with the Lt. Governor prove that to be demonstrably false. 

Both my staff and Lt. Governor Carroll responded to your multiple inquiries.  You apparently don’t like the answers.  I can’t help that.

Kovaleski return the ball to Burgess’ court:

Your distortions are certainly troubling.

No one from your office, for instance, has responded to us about the decision to select Ms. Corey as a special prosecutor and what the process entailed. If they have, point it out. And no one from your office has responded to us about the conflict of interest cited by Mr. Wolfinger. If they have, point that out, as well.

If you decide that you or somebody else in the Scott administration would like to substantively engage on these issues for the upcoming story, feel free to reach out, absolutely. Short of that, no one here is interested in your games.

Thank you and very best,

Serge

Can’t wait to read the next rejoinder from Burgess…

***Update***There’s a telling email response from Amy Graham, another staffer in the communications office, to Burgess after he updates her on the situation.

Graham’s oh-so-simple reply:

This guy is exactly why I don’t read the New York Times.

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