Six people were killed earlier this year when a $14.2 million pedestrian bridge that had been recently installed over a highway near Florida International University collapsed.
The victims were on the bridge or underneath, because no one involved — the city, the state, the highway department or the builder — thought it was worthwhile to close the road temporarily.
Now the federal government is fighting to keep the records of discussions on the issue secret from the public.
Judicial Watch said a state judge ruled earlier this week that Florida law regards the documents as public records and they must be released.
But on Thursday the Miami Herald reported the National Transportation Safety Board announced plans to ask that the case be moved to federal court – to keep it from a state judge.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida said it would ask a federal judge to ‘quash’ a state court ruling that ordered the Florida Department of Transportation to release records relating to the collapse to the Miami Herald, according to a court filing made Thursday on behalf of the NTSB,” the report said.
At issue is “why state officials failed to close the road under the bridge before it collapsed on March 15, killing six people,” the report said.
Judicial Watch asked: “Can the federal government withhold records that are public under state law simply by claiming that the documents are part of ‘an ongoing investigation?'”
Not according to the state judge.
“The government has tried to conceal details of the catastrophe and local media outlets have been forced to take legal action to uncover the truth. The key agencies involved are the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency responsible for conducting accident investigations,” the Washington watchdog said.
“Agents in NTSB jackets descend upon the scene of every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and other ‘significant’ accidents involving various modes of transportation. The goal is to determine the probable cause of the accidents and issue safety recommendations that can prevent future disasters. Part of the process is releasing information to the public. However, the Miami bridge debacle, which was mostly funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation grant, has been veiled in suspicious secrecy.”
The state judge, Kevin Carroll, had ruled that the public records are, in fact, public records. Giving the NTSB access did not change that.
“Simply put, under Florida law, it is clear that furnishing a document (which was a public record when it was made or created record) to an investigating agency would not alter its status as a public record and it would remain available for public inspection,” the judge said.
He said the records already “were public” when they were provided to the NTSB and need to remain so.
The Herald said the feds already have blocked many documents held by the state and the university from being released.
Explained the newspaper: “The 950-ton bridge was developing severe cracks in the days before it collapsed, but no one thought it necessary to close the road. The records sought by the Herald include minutes from a meeting held the morning of the collapse to discuss the cracks. Among those present were officials from FIU and FDOT, as well as the private contractors building the bridge.”
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor: “We believe these records are public, and our position has been upheld by state court. We regret the U.S. Attorney’s Office move to delay their release.”
The newspaper reported the bridge had a critical design flaw that may have doomed it, based on the opinions of independent engineers who reviewed the construction plans.
Experts said the cracks that developed were a warning sign that failure was imminent, and the road underneath should have been closed to traffic.