ORLANDO – A letter from Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Paul Wysopal has instructed local municipalities and agencies to forward requests made under the Florida Sunshine Act for information and records pertaining to the Pulse nightclub shooting investigation to the FBI.
In the letter, Wysopal said the FBI “has a strong interest in protecting such information and records from public disclosure until such time as the risks associated with the disclosure have expired.”
Wysopal said the FBI views information obtained from the scene of the shooting as evidence or potential evidence and that release of the information could hinder the investigation, place witnesses, law enforcement officers and others in danger and possibly prejudice any legal cases arising from the investigation.
The FBI’s letter was sent to law enforcement officials in response to requests for information related to the Pulse shooting. Wysopal said in the letter that the federal Freedom of Information Act often protects information related to an investigation, and that Florida’s Sunshine Law contains similar provisions exempting “active criminal investigative information” from public disclosure.
“Florida’s Sunshine Law, which is part of that state’s constitution, dictates that all information is open from the start (unless there is a reason) to keep it closed to the public, as opposed to other states where it may be closed to begin with and you have to fight to make it open,” Daniel Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism, told the Florida Record.
Bevarly said the foundation has seen examples where an agency refuses to turn over records until an open investigation is closed, as well as cases where the agency may cite public protection to not release information in active investigations.
“In those cases based on a policy, a public records petitioner may only have the courts, via litigation, to pursue their request,” Bevarly said.
In this case, Bevarly said it appears that the FBI and the Orlando Police Department may choose to hold the requested information until they feel its release is appropriate. He said this can be challenged in court.
“There are occasions when a government agency or public institution follows an internal policy on releasing public information and not the specific law that governs that public information,” Bevarly said. “In those cases, petitioners may be able to appeal a denial to another agency, sometimes the attorney general, or the only option that may be available to them is to seek the information through litigation and filing an FOI lawsuit to obtain it.”
To the extent the local Florida law enforcement officials are obligated under the Sunshine Law to disclose information related to the investigation, including information that has been provided to the FBI, Wysopal’s letter requests that the information be withheld under Florida statute 119.71(c)(1), which exempts release of information pertinent to an active criminal investigation, or another applicable exemption.
In addition, the letter asks that the FBI be notified of any Sunshine Law requests so the FBI can try to block the disclosure through appropriate channels, if necessary.