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Dispute over FIU bridge records moves to federal court

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two days after a Tallahassee judge ordered that records related to a deadly bridge collapse at Florida International University be handed over to the Miami Herald, the National Transportation Safety Board has had the case moved to federal court.

Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll on Tuesday ordered the Florida Department of Transportation to release records related to the March 15 collapse after the Herald sued to obtain the documents.

Using Florida’s public-records law, the Herald requested a wide range of documents related to the 950-ton, 174-foot span, which collapsed days after being positioned across an eight-lane road in Miami, killing six people.

But state transportation officials claimed they could not comply with the newspaper’s request because of a federal law related 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 siding with the Herald, Carroll found 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.”

On Thursday, the NTSB had the case moved to federal court, something federal agencies are allowed to do, and asked that Carroll’s order be put on hold while a federal judge considers a motion to overturn the decision.

The move by the NTSB came hours before state transportation officials were scheduled to turn over the documents, according to a motion filed Thursday on behalf of the NTSB by Andrew Grogan, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Yu said the state was ready to comply with Carroll’s order.

In Thursday’s federal-court motion, Grogan argued that a stay is warranted in the case because “the government is likely to succeed on the merits of its forthcoming motion to quash the state court’s order.”

And, he argued, the NTSB “may suffer irreparable harm to its investigation if the investigative information is prematurely disclosed.”

Grogan acknowledged “both the plaintiffs and the public have a legitimate interest in learning what happened in the lead-up to the bridge collapse.”

But, he added, “it is also in the public’s interest to preserve the integrity of the investigation so that NTSB can fulfill its mission of determining the probable cause of the accident and making recommendations to prevent similar accidents in the future.”