Judge: Florida Violated Open Records Laws When It Stonewalled Pension Record Requests, Sent Investigators To Man’s Home In “Chilling” Incident

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Over the last few years, Curtis Lee—Jacksonville resident and retired pension attorney—has filed dozens upon dozens of public record requests relating to the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund.

But Lee claims that instead of getting access to the public records he requested, he was stonewalled by the State Attorney’s Office for the Fourth Judicial District.

In one instance, says Lee, the Office waited a full year to provide an initial response to his requests. In another, the Office sent investigators to Lee’s home to tell him to stop contacting the Office and to question him as to his purpose for requesting the documents.

So Lee filed a lawsuit against the Office alleging they violated public records laws with their actions.

And the law gave Lee some solace this week when a judge sharply criticized the Office and ruled that they will have to pay for all of Lee’s legal fees. The judge, however, did not rule that the Office intentionally broke public records laws, which would have carried more serious penalties. More from the Florida Times-Union:

A judge ruled State Attorney Angela Corey’s office broke Florida’s public-records law, scolding the prosecutor’s office for sending investigators to question the citizen in his home and never demonstrating why the unusual visit was “necessary and appropriate.”

Judge Karen Cole also criticized Corey’s office for refusing to accept Lee’s cash for records and in some cases taking more than a year to provide even an initial response.
The State Attorney’s Office will have to pay Lee’s legal fees for his lawsuit against it. Cole will need to figure out exactly how much that is. Lee’s attorney, Brooks Rathet, said it should be somewhere around $20,000.

The State Attorney’s Office also violated public records laws by requiring the public to pay for records with business checks, cashier’s checks or money orders. Cash and debit cards were not accepted.

To get a money order, Lee and others had to pay a third-party service a fee. That, Cole said, “unlawfully burdens” citizens. From now on, the State Attorney’s Office has to accept cash for records. If the office wants to, the judge said, it can also allow other types of payment.

Cole also described how the State Attorney’s Office violated the law by taking too long with its response to requests.

As one example described, Lee sent Corey’s office six letters with 27 categories of public records requests in February 2011.

About five days later, two State Attorney’s Office investigators came to Lee’s door, according to Judge Karen Cole’s final judgment.

Sending investigators to tell someone to stop calling the State Attorney’s Office “would have a chilling effect,” Cole wrote, for most people. Most people might not have continued requesting records after a visit like that, she wrote.

After the judgment, the Office told Lee that they would produce the records he had requested by Thursday, August 14.

Lee filed a similar lawsuit against the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund. Lee won certain aspects of that case, but the case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court by the fund.

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