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News organizations fighting for access to what they insist are public records. A major public university accused of scheming with a law firm to conceal documents. The win record of a famous college football coach on the line. A high-profile Florida court case has captivated sports fans and open-records advocates alike in the Sunshine State, and it may be nearing resolution. At the heart of the dispute is whether documents in Florida State University‘s appeal of sanctions imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association are subject to Florida’s Public Records Act. The Associated Press, 17 newspapers, six television stations and two other news organizations filed suit on June 15 against the NCAA, FSU and the university’s law firm, GrayRobinson. The lawsuit claims that the defendants purposely exchanged documents though a secure Web site to shield them from the state’s open records laws, and that those documents should be released to the public. The intense media interest in the university’s appeal of the NCAA sanctions stems from the fact that the sanctions would seriously hinder longtime FSU football coach Bobby Bowden’s bid to become the college football coach with the most career wins. More than 60 student-athletes were implicated in an academic cheating investigation at the university in February 2008. As a result, the NCAA issued a report in March of this year that called for the school to forfeit 14 football victories and serve four years on probation, among other sanctions. Wiping those victories from the record books would make it much more difficult for Bowden to eclipse Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno, who has 383 career wins. Without the sanction, Bowden trails Paterno by just one game. FSU appealed the sanctions through the NCAA. The parties to the lawsuit now are wrangling over access to those documents. SECURE WEB SITE According to the plaintiff’s complaint, the NCAA provided its response to FSU’s appeal of the sanctions to GrayRobinson via a secure Web site in a read-only format that can’t be saved or copied. GrayRobinson reviewed and communicated the contents of the documents to FSU officials. The complaint maintains that the documents are public record regardless of the technology used to distribute them or the fact that they were sent to GrayRobinson and not FSU directly. “The NCAA’s decision for something to remain confidential doesn’t make it confidential” under state law, said David S. Barlow, one of the attorneys representing the news organizations. Five weeks after the civil complaint was filed, FSU filed a counterclaim against the NCAA, also seeking to compel it to make the documents available and to pay the university’s legal fees. That counterclaim argued that the NCAA had imposed its secrecy policies on the university and prevented the FSU from releasing the documents to the public. The NCAA filed a motion to dismiss the suit on July 27, claiming that the documents in question are private and didn’t become public “simply because FSU’s attorneys looked at them.” The motion argues that the documents were never actually transmitted to FSU and that the NCCA is not a “custodian of public records” under Florida law — two designations that would render them a public record. Confidentiality is important to ensure that people will come forward during investigations and the secure Web site helps to protect the needed confidentiality, the complaint says. Attorney E. Thom Rumberger, who represents the NCAA, did not return calls for comment. GrayRobinson has filed a separate motion to dismiss itself from the case, arguing that it is not a proper defendant because it never had custody of the documents. WHITE SOX PRECEDENT In a motion for partial summary judgment filed on Aug. 3, the plaintiffs cited a 1990 ruling by Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeals that the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Chicago White Sox baseball team had violated the state’s open records laws when they used a law firm as a go-between to keep documents out of the city’s possession. Those documents dealt with a potential move by the team to St. Petersburg. “All of the things that are in play here have been tried before and have been shot down,” said Carol Jean LoCicero, another of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “The only thing different, kind of, is the technology they’re using.” A hearing on the motions is scheduled in the case for Thursday in Leon County, Fla., Circuit Court in Tallahassee before Judge John C. Cooper. A non-jury trial is scheduled for Aug. 20 and 21. “There’s a lot going on,” said William E. Williams, the GrayRobinson attorney representing FSU and his firm. “I’m not sure what we’ll see.”

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