Palm Beach Post by Kimberly Miller
December 8, 2017
The filing of criminal charges against public officials for violating open records laws is a rare event usually reserved for the most flagrant incidents, according to a Florida legal expert.
That’s why proponents of the state’s sweeping Government in the Sunshine Law are closely watching the cases of Martin County Commissioner Edward Fielding, 73, and former Commissioner Anne Scott, 69, who were arrested in November on criminal misdemeanor charges of failing to allow inspection of public records.
Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard, 63, was accused of a non-criminal infraction related to violating public records laws.
The charges were brought after the powerful Lake Point Restoration mining company sued Martin County in 2014 for public records violations. After years in court and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, Lake Point won the case in February.
Most cases of alleged public records violations are made by average citizens without the resources for a lengthy legal battle.
“It’s very challenging to get a prosecutor to take an open records violation seriously as a criminal offense because violations are so habitual and routine, it’s like trying to put someone in jail for driving over 55 mph on the highway,” said Frank LoMonte, a lawyer and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “The law is so widely winked at, prosecutors hesitate to single someone out and make an example of them.”
Records kept by the Brechner Center between 2010 and mid-2016 include three incidents where criminal charges were levied for violating public records laws. In all cases the people charged were either cleared or had penalties reduced to a civil infraction.
In 2010, former Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons was charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for violating sunshine laws, as well as extortion and perjury. The charges stemmed from an accusation that he threatened opponents of a mangrove preserve that he was championing. He pleaded guilty to all charges, was sentenced to five years’ probation and fined $11,500.
Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, could only think of one criminal prosecution off the top of her head. That was a case against an Escambia County School Board member, who, in 1999, was convicted criminally of a public records law violation. The conviction was ultimately tossed and all charges dropped.
Most incidents of Sunshine Law violations researched by the Brechner Center were handled civilly, usually with a $500 fine akin to a traffic ticket. [READ MORE]