Citizens for Sunshine is not well known everywhere in Florida, but that may change this year.
Public officials in the Sarasota area have learned to be wary of the nonprofit, which has made itself an enforcer of open-government laws here for years. Now, with a high-profile case against Gov. Rick Scott, some observers may ask: What is Citizens for Sunshine?
Since its founding in 2008, the group has successfully litigated numerous open-government complaints under Florida’s Sunshine Law here in Southwest Florida. One public records case in 2010 led to the recall of an Anna Maria city commissioner, and several more have forced cities and school boards to admit Sunshine violations and reverse decisions.
Legal bills for those disputes have been expensive for taxpayers.
Over the past six years, nearly $2 million has been paid out by local governments to fight or settle more than a dozen Citizens for Sunshine cases. Some of that money has gone to pay Citizens for Sunshine’s attorney, but more has been spent by cities defending against the suits.
This year, Citizens for Sunshine is taking on its biggest case yet, leading a group of major Florida newspapers and national media companies in a lawsuit against Scott and the Florida Cabinet.
The group’s complaint alleges that the governor violated the Sunshine Law in carrying out a controversial change in leadership at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement late last year.
Scott has apologized for how he handled the ouster of the state’s top law enforcement official, but has pushed back against claims that he did anything wrong. As the case has grown into a larger problem for Scott, Citizens for Sunshine may be in a bright spotlight with him.
Apart from founder and former Sarasota resident Anthony Lorenzo in Ohio, the nonprofit board includes three members who live in Florida: a 25-year-old law firm employee in West Palm Beach, a former police records supervisor in North Port and a longtime Sarasota County Republican activist in Venice.
Citizens for Sunshine has detractors in Sarasota, where the group is most active and has forced public officials to admit Sunshine Law violations. Some critics note that members of the group rarely appear in public and don’t live in the city. Some have asked whether the group’s lawsuits are less about open government and more about generating legal fees.
Sarasota attorney Andrea Mogensen represents the group and often acts as its public face. Even more familiar to some local officials is Michael Barfield, a paralegal at Mogensen’s firm who has a reputation as a Sunshine Law expert and an investigator.
The pair have made names for themselves in Florida, and, apart from their work with Citizens for Sunshine, have filed more than a dozen complaints against the city of Sarasota over public records, civil rights and the alleged wrongful arrests of homeless people.
“They put their money where their mouth is,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit concerned with free speech and open government.
The group is unique in the state, Petersen said, in trying to ensure that public officials follow open-government rules they might otherwise ignore.
State attorneys rarely show interest in such cases.
In Sarasota, former Mayor Kelly Kirschner has long been a critic of Citizens for Sunshine and attorney Mogensen.
Kirschner has often spoken against the group at public meetings, warning that it seeks to make offenses out of normal local government practices that were widely accepted when he was in office from 2007 to 2011.
Their efforts are bad for local government, Kirschner said. City commissioners have sometimes stopped coming to his neighborhood meetings for fear of getting mixed up in a Sunshine violation.
Citizens for Sunshine may profess a concern for government transparency, he said, but it should be scrutinized, too. The fact that none of its members live in Sarasota irks him. “There’s just something about that, that doesn’t ring true,” he said.
Board member Andrew Swain defended the group from his workplace at a law office in West Palm Beach.
A recent graduate of New College of Florida in Sarasota, he said he became interested in Citizens for Sunshine through his involvement with the campus American Civil Liberties Union club.
Swain said he took offense at the implication that the group’s board members were just names at the head of a dummy corporation. The board is diverse, Swain said, its members scattered across the state. They have done work across Florida, in Martin, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach counties, as well as in Manatee County and Sarasota.
“I’m a third-generation Floridian,” Swain said. “We are real people. We all care about transparency in government, and that’s the truth of it.”
“I think that Sarasota is now one of the more educated cities when it comes to the Sunshine Law, and I think it’s by virtue of our presence there.”
Since 2010, a series of open-government complaints involving Citizens for Sunshine or Mogensen have cost the city about $638,000.
About $88,000 of that was paid to attorneys’ fees to Mogensen in settlements. The majority went to the City Attorney’s Office in defense fees.
By law, Sunshine Law cases of this type cannot seek damages, but attorneys can seek payment of fees if they prevail in court or by settlement.
Citizens for Sunshine’s biggest wins remain bitter memories for some, years after the decisions.
Former Venice Mayor Ed Martin said he believes justice was not served in a 2008 public-records lawsuit when he was in office.
Martin was one of the City Council members sued in the case, and he resents how it was handled by the attorneys and the press.
“There was no trial, there was no jury,” Martin said. “We got burned.”
On the eve of trial, Venice’s attorneys settled, allowing officials to be dropped from the suit while the city took blame for violations. The distinction put taxpayers on the hook for $1.5 million in legal fees.
About half of that money was divided by Mogensen and a group of several other plaintiff’s attorneys who worked on the case. The other half went to the city’s attorneys.
Since then, Citizens for Sunshine has been more active in Sarasota, where its case against Vice Mayor Susan Chapman has continued to roil City Hall. Here, old cases feed current controversies.
Last month, City Commissioner Eileen Normile described a 2010 public-records case from Anna Maria as evidence that Citizens for Sunshine and paralegal Michael Barfield sought to “drag out” litigation. She has accused the group of driving up attorneys’ fees with “specious” lawsuits.
Barfield contradicted Normile’s version of events in a detailed letter to the City Commission that was packaged with court records.
The Anna Maria case was left inactive for about three years and then dismissed because the commissioner targeted in the complaint was recalled and removed from office in the meantime. Jim Dye, the Anna Maria city attorney at the time, said that he did not think the suit was frivolous, and that it seemed clear that Barfield’s complaint led to the commissioner’s recall. The city was not a defendant in the case.
Normile, like other critics, also said Barfield could not be trusted because he has a criminal record.
In the 1980s, he was convicted of several counts of grand theft and uttering false instrument in Escambia County. In January 1997, after he had become a paralegal, he was convicted of one count of grand theft in Palm Beach County. In 2000, he was convicted of five federal counts of perjury, conspiracy and wire fraud.
Barfield said those are mistakes that he has left behind. He said he stands by his work since.
“It is something that my critics frequently bring up. I don’t know what that has to do with what has occurred now,” Barfield said. “As if whatever I did 15, 20 years ago somehow excuses them or exonerates them from breaking the law.”
In addition to Citizens for Sunshine, Barfield and Mogensen work with the American Civil Liberties Union. They are often working in opposition to authorities on civil rights, wrongful arrest or police surveillance cases.
“I would be controversial even I was an altar boy,” Barfield said.
Outside City Hall, government attorneys who have faced off against Citizens for Sunshine said they believed in Barfield’s integrity.
Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley said he has been on opposite sides of issues with Citizens for Sunshine. He often disagrees with the group philosophically, but respects it and Barfield in particular, he said.
While the group often pushes for more transparency in government, Bentley argues for stricter interpretations of the law and more flexibility for officials.
“Michael and others see it as the cost of doing business, and others see it as too high a price to pay. And it just depends on which side of the coin you’re on,” Bentley said.
“Mike is a committed First Amendment activist. He has taken criticism for his personal background, but he has deep ties to this issue and statewide contacts with this issue, and certainly has made it his life work to prosecute issues that he sees as violation of open government laws.”
For an example of an organization accused of filing open-government lawsuits for profit, some would point to the Citizens Awareness Foundation in Deerfield Beach.
According to a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the foundation and a sister group filed more than 140 lawsuits in 27 counties, sent some agencies thousands of public-records requests, and made quick demands for thousands of dollars in settlements.
Those numbers dwarf the activities of Citizens for Sunshine, and several people familiar with both said the two can’t be compared.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that Michael’s operation is set up that way,” Bentley said. “You have to respect them. Whether you agree with them is a different story.”
Last month, Citizens for Sunshine filed an amended complaint against Scott and his Cabinet, adding several plaintiffs to the lawsuit, including the national media companies Gannett Co. Inc., the Morris Communications Corporation, Scripps Media Inc., the Times Publishing Co. and GateHouse Media, owner of the Herald-Tribune.
At the same time, individual members of the Florida Cabinet were added to the list of defendants, including Secretary of Agriculture Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office already is familiar with Citizens for Sunshine. Some of the group’s cases are listed on the Attorney General’s website as examples of how the Sunshine Law works.
Original article here.