Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino's private emails at issue in Sunshine Law case

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 12, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County attorney's office asserted Monday that a request for public records in a Florida Sunshine Law case applies only to Commissioner Robin DiSabatino because she used a private email account rather than her official county account.

The county did not dispute facts at issue in the case, and sought to be dropped as a defendant from the suit, according to Assistant County Attorney Rob Eschenfelder.

Sarasota legal consultant Michael Barfield last month filed the civil lawsuit, naming Manatee County and DiSabatino as defendants.

Since the county did not have custody or control of DiSabatino's private email, it cannot be sued under the law over maintenance or release of public records kept there, according to a brief Eschenfelder filed with the court.

"Their theory is they're not responsible for acts of their commissioner, due to a private email account," Barfield said. "I don't believe that's the law, and that's why we're going to court."

When asked for comment, DiSabatino said, "I believe I'm innocent of all the allegations, and I've hired an attorney to represent me."

Her attorney, Ralf Brookes, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Former County Commissioner Joe McClash, who was also involved in the incident last fall from which the lawsuit stemmed, had arranged for private email dealing with county business to be forwarded to his public email account, said Eschenfelder's brief.

"This method would, as it did in the case of Commissioner McClash, allow the County to capture such messages," it states.

Barfield, who is affiliated with the law offices of Andrea Mogensen, P.A., of Sarasota, said he regularly sees governmental abuse involving private email.

"The issue du jour I see on a weekly basis is the ease by which a public official can create an email account with total anonymity," said Barfield. "It's a problem; some public officials find it difficult to resist. A substantial amount of public business is being kept off the radar screen.

"Citizens are entitled to know what their government is up to, and private email accounts are a way for government officials to throw a monkey wrench into it," Barfield added.

The civil suit requests declaratory and injunctive relief for what it claims was a failure to comply with state open records laws.

Last fall, Barfield requested documents from DiSabatino seeking any electronic communication, including e-mails, text messages and social media messages from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, 2012, with certain words in them.

The situation came to Barfield's attention after she and McClash acknowledged having a meeting last fall following the adjournment of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization board, the Herald reported last month.

The suit sought electronic messages relating to the incident, which it claimed were incomplete, illegible and not provided in digital format as requested. DiSabatino has contended that Sunshine Law violations did not occur because she did not sit on the MPO board, the MPO had already voted on the subject she was asking engineers about, and she did not speak with McClash.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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