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Judge orders state to turn over FIU bridge records

The members from the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Siding with the Miami Herald, a Tallahassee judge Tuesday ordered state transportation officials to hand over records related to a March bridge collapse at Florida International University that resulted in six deaths.

The Herald sued the Florida Department of Transportation in May, after officials with the agency refused to release some documents related to the March 15 collapse of the pedestrian bridge.

State transportation officials claimed they could not comply with the request because federal law restricts the dissemination of information by a “party” to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB backed up state officials’ position, saying the requested documents, which ranged from Feb. 20 to March 17, fell within the scope of a regulation prohibiting the release of information “obtained during an investigation.”

But during a hearing last month, Scott Ponce, an attorney representing the Herald, told Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll the regulation doesn’t apply to documents that were created before the investigation began.

“Our position is because those documents were obtained by the department before the investigation, under the language of this, they clearly weren’t obtained during the investigation. To read into this (that) what it really means is information obtained by NTSB during the investigation, that’s rewriting the regulation. That’s not what the regulation says,” Ponce argued.

In a six-page order issued Tuesday, Carroll agreed.

Transportation officials and the NTSB “take the position that the phrase ‘obtained during an investigation’ means information obtained by the NTSB during an investigation,” Carroll wrote.

But the documents in dispute “were public records” that “were obtained prior to the existence of an investigation … before the state began participating in said investigation,” the judge continued.

The department “apparently takes the position” that as soon as the documents were obtained by the NTSB, they became “investigative information” that cannot be disclosed to the public. “The court does not agree,” Carroll wrote.

State transportation officials said Tuesday they are reviewing Carroll’s decision.

Using Florida’s broad public-records law, the Herald requested a wide range of documents related to the bridge and the subsequent collapse, but state officials refused to provide records from Feb. 20 and later.

“We are happy that the court has ordered the public disclosure of these records. They were public records when they were created, and it is important that they stay that way so the public can evaluate the facts surrounding the collapse of the bridge,” Ponce told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.  

Transportation officials and the NTSB did not cite any previous court decisions holding “that a government agency’s records that are public records in the first instance lose their character as public records or become otherwise unavailable for public inspection, because they are subsequently provided to an investigative agency in the course of an investigation,” Carroll wrote.

But Florida law “is clear that furnishing a document (which was a public record when it was made or recreated record) to an investigating agency would not alter its status as a public record and it would remain available for public inspection,” the judge added.

The NTSB had argued that its investigative work has been harmed when information is released without court approval, something Carroll acknowledged in his analysis, with a caveat.

“There may well be a legitimate concern regarding the disclosure of information obtained from private sources. This court, however, has difficulty envisioning how that argument applies to materials maintained by the state of Florida which were already public records at the time they were provided to the NTSB,” the judge wrote.