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Prosecutor drops charge for breaking open records law

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    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information    

Prosecutor drops charge for breaking open records law

  • Ex-school board member, who was the first public official jailed for violating the state’s sunshine laws, will not face another trial.

July 23, 2003 — A prosecutor on Friday decided not to pursue a new trial against a former Escambia County, Fla., school board member accused of unlawfully refusing to provide a public record to a Pensacola mother.

Vanette Webb became the first public official jailed in Florida for violating the state’s open records law. In 1999, a judge sentenced her to nearly a year in jail, but suspended all but 30 days. Webb served a week of the sentence before County Judge William White, who had been assigned to take over the case, threw out her conviction.

A state appeals court reinstated the conviction and the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear Webb’s appeal. The case was sent back to White, who in March 2002 granted Webb a new trial. In June, an appeals court upheld the order for a new trial.

Rather than starting over, State Attorney Curtis Golden dropped the charge and told the Pensacola News Journal he was satisfied that the constitutionality of the law and its application had been upheld. Plus, Webb had not been re-elected.

Jon Kaney, general counsel for the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told the Pensacola newspaper he had no argument with the decision to drop the charge because the high-profile case has served its purpose of reminding public officials of their duties.

“The name Vanette Webb will be remembered by public officials, lawyers and the press in this state for a long time to come,” Kaney said. “A point was made rather emphatically when she was prosecuted and convicted. What she did was very much deserving of punishment. She defied the law in a way that leaves no doubt of her intent.”

Webb said in an e-mail to the News Journal that she never should have been charged.

“Charges were dropped five years too late,” Webb wrote. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Webb is not alone in doing time for violating access laws. On June 19, suspended Escambia County Commissioner W.D. Childers was released on $10,000 bond after serving more than half of a 60-day sentence on one count of violating the state’s open meetings law.

A jury convicted Childers last year of discussing redistricting by telephone with the county election supervisor while another commissioner listened on the speaker phone.

(Florida v. Webb) KH

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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