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Audit: State law enforcement text messages lacked oversight

File photo (pressureUA/iStock)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s top law enforcement agency did not have safeguards in place to ensure text messages sent and received by its employees were retained as required by state law, according to an audit released last week.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also did not ban department employees from using personal devices to text about official state business, the report by the Florida Auditor General found.

“The department should enhance policies and procedures to either prohibit department employees from using their personal devices to send or receive text messages pertaining to official state business or provide for the retention of such messages,” auditors wrote.

The agency acknowledged the findings and agreed to follow auditors’ recommendations to enhance public record policies.

Florida’s broad open records laws require state agencies to retain electronic communications for a certain period of time. “Transitory messages,” such as text messages, “are to be maintained until obsolete, superseded, or administrative value is lost,” the report noted.

"A change in policy has been proposed to address the issue of personal cellular phone usage,” FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen wrote in a Nov. 18 response to auditors’ findings.

A copy of the proposed policy change was not made immediately available following a request by The News Service of Florida.

Another issue flagged by auditors concerned a “service organization” the state agency relies upon to retain text messages “in accordance with state law,” according to the report.

Auditors noted the department failed to monitor the service organization’s safeguards, and that agency officials did not require the service organization to report to the agency on its “effectiveness” preserving text messages.

“It is incumbent upon the Department to take steps to reasonably ensure that service organization controls relevant to text message retention are suitably designed and operating effectively,” the auditors recommended.

Auditors added FDLE personnel involved in procuring and overseeing text message retention services “were not aware of the need for service auditor reports.”

“To ensure that text messages are retained in accordance with state law, we recommend the department management make or obtain independent and periodic assessments of the service organization’s relevant internal controls,” the report states.

In a response to the audit, Swearingen said his agency will start conducting periodic checks on the service organization. And he agreed to require the service organization to provide the reports for the agency to review in the future.

Problems with text message retention were among a number of issues highlighted by auditors.

The report also found FDLE failed to report the names of passengers flying on state-operated aircrafts and the purposes of their travels.

People who are not traveling on state business are allowed to fly on state-operated aircraft under certain circumstances. They may accompany the governor, the lieutenant governor, a member of the Florida Cabinet, the Senate president, the House Speaker or the Florida Supreme Court chief justice when those officials are on state business and seats are available, according to state law.

However, the people not traveling on state business have to pay a portion of the transportation costs.

Auditors examined flight records from January 2019 to June 2019 and found 1,311 passengers flew on 310 state-operated flights, and none of them were subject to travel charges.

During the six-month time period, Gov. Ron DeSantis -- who took office in January -- has regularly flown on state-operated planes.

But auditors noted the lack of flight records made it difficult to asses who flew with him or to assert that “all transportation on department aircraft (was) for official state business.”