Acting at the last minute Thursday, a federal judge put on hold a state court order that would have released public records relating to the fatal Florida International University bridge collapse.
U.S. District Court Judge William Stafford agreed to stay the state court ruling at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, which is representing the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal government agency investigating the collapse.
The NTSB is seeking to move the public-records case to federal court after an unfavorable ruling from a state judge earlier this week.
The records in question may explain why state officials failed to close the road under the bridge before it collapsed on March 15, killing six people.
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The Miami Herald sued the Florida Department of Transportation in May to force the release of the records, after the NTSB blocked FDOT from releasing many documents, citing the need to preserve the integrity of its investigation.. A state court judge then ordered FDOT to release the documents to the Herald.
In a court filing Thursday seeking the stay, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it would ask the federal judge to “quash” the state court ruling. “The case must be dismissed in its entirety,” the filing stated.
The 950-ton bridge was developing severe cracks in the days before it collapsed, but no one ordered the road to be closed. The records sought by the Herald include minutes from a meeting held the morning of the collapse to discuss the cracks. Among those present were officials from FIU and FDOT, as well as the private contractors building the bridge.
On Tuesday, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Carroll ruled that FDOT must produce the records to the Herald. The law allows a 48-hour window, meaning a release early Thursday afternoon. Carroll said federal regulations cited by FDOT that allow the NTSB to block the release of “investigative information” did not apply to the records sought by the Herald. The judge said those regulations could not be used to pre-empt Florida’s public-records law.
“We believe these records are public, and our position has been upheld by state court,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor. “We regret the U.S. Attorney’s Office move to delay their release.”
But NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil said the agency believed Carroll’s order “impinges on the Board’s authority to interpret and apply its regulations” and that a federal court should prevent FDOT from releasing the records.
Amy Alexander, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment when asked why the federal government waited months to raise questions of jurisdiction.
The NTSB is not a defendant in the case, although it was given an opportunity over several months to become a party and failed to do so.
Ed Seifert, a spokesman for FDOT, said the department had been ready to comply with Carroll’s order.
“By filing documents to remove this case to federal court today, the NTSB has blocked our action,” Seifert said. “FDOT has never disputed that these are public records.”
If the NTSB loses in federal court, it is still possible that FDOT may be able to appeal the decision in state court. Seifert did not respond when asked if FDOT was still considering the possibility of an appeal.
Federal district courts generally do not review the decisions of state courts. But federal lawyers argued in a notice for removal Thursday that the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida should grant the case a new hearing because FDOT was acting under instructions from the NTSB.
“A ‘civil action’ commenced in state court against or directed to federal agencies or entities acting under such authority can be removed to a federal district court for proper disposition,” the notice read.
The NTSB has said releasing records from after Feb. 19, approximately four weeks before the collapse, would threaten its investigation. It has prevented the cooperating “parties” to its investigation from releasing those records in response to public records requests. Those parties include FIU, which primarily oversaw the project, FDOT, designers FIGG Bridge Group and construction firm Munilla Construction Management. While the NTSB chose not to intervene in the state court case, federal lawyers did file a “statement of interest” laying out the government’s position this summer.
“Once the direction and focus of an ongoing investigation is revealed, evidence can disappear, and witnesses change their stories,” the office of U.S. Attorney Christopher Canova wrote in a July court filing. “Additionally, once information is prematurely released, the parties to the investigation face increased public pressure to comment and defend themselves to the media.”
The bridge suffered from a critical design flaw that may have doomed it to failure, according to independent engineers who studied its plans at the Herald’s request. The cracks were a warning sign that the bridge was dangerous and that Southwest Eighth Street, which ran under it, should have been closed down, the experts said.
Stuart Grossman, an attorney for Richard Humble, who narrowly survived when the falling bridge crushed the driver of the vehicle he was sitting in, said that NTSB seeking a federal court hearing after a loss in state court was “unheard of” and seemed “like a coverup.”
“It’s an urban massacre that occurred in plain sight,” said Grossman, who is representing Humble in a lawsuit against the firms responsible for the bridge. “Lives were lost. Lives were altered forever. Why does the government want to keep these records from its citizens?”