How a tiny non-profit startup broke the year’s biggest Florida politics story

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Barbara Petersen
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the FLCGA

A tiny non-profit last week broke the biggest story in Florida politics that continues to reverberate around the country. Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, appeared on WMNF WaveMakers with Janet & Tom to discuss how that happened and the other work her group is doing to ensure public access to government records.

The story of rape allegations against Florida Republican Party Chairman Christian Ziegler has been picked up by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Fox, the BBC and pretty much everyone else in the world. Republican officials from Gov. Ron DeSantis to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott have called on Ziegler to resign. Ziegler has not been charged, has declared his innocence and refuses to quit. He says the sex was consensual. A special meeting of the GOP executive committee is scheduled this weekend to discuss the situation. 

All of those developments have occurred since Thursday after an exclusive report by Bob Norman, editor-in-chief of the Trident, the news arm of the non-partisan Florida Center for Government Accountability.

Petersen said the FCGA staff began hearing rumors of the police investigation over the alleged rape on Oct. 2. It made a series of public records requests to the Sarasota Police Department and Sarasota Sheriff’s Office that eventually led to a series of stories. It’s an example of the kind of investigative work the FLCGA and the Trident have been able to do since it was founded in February 2022.

Petersen, who spent 25 years safeguarding public access to government records and meetings as executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said the Trident was started because of Florida’s shrinking media landscape. The center frequently gets tips about government wrongdoing but can’t rely on the limited number of reporters left at traditional news organizations.

Besides publishing investigative journalism, the center works with news organizations and citizen activists to unearth public documents and has successfully sued when those records have been denied. One case involving Gov. Ron Desantis flying migrants to other states prompted a judge to order the release of flight records. That case was recently spotlighted by 60 Minutes

The center relies on donations to support its work and its small staff. For more information on the group or to send a news tip, go to flgca.org. 

Hear the entire conversation by clicking the link below, going to the WaveMakers archives or by searching for WMNF WaveMakers wherever you listen to podcasts.

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