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.”
The investigators told the resident, Curtis Lee, to stop contacting Corey’s office, something that could have a “chilling effect” on similar requests, the judge said.
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.
In March 2010, Lee — a former attorney who specialized in pension funds — asked the State Attorney’s Office to investigate the Police and Fire Pension Fund, especially former city councilman Karl “Jay” Jabour and businessman Peter Sleiman.
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.
“One investigator told Mr. Lee that the “legal beagles” had decided that they would not indict Mr. Sleiman and that Mr. Lee should therefore stop contacting the SAO,” Cole wrote. “At trial, the SAO did not deny that the SAO sent its investigators to visit Mr. Lee. Neither did the SAO testify why such visit was necessary and appropriate.”
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.
About the same day the investigators came to Lee’s door, the State Attorney’s Office told Lee some documents he requested were exempt from public disclosure.
The office, “gave Mr. Lee conflicting responses on this issue, at times saying that there was an open investigation into the conduct of one or both board members, and at other times saying that there was no such investigation,” Cole wrote.
More than a year later, on April 13, 2012, the office told him some of the other documents he requested didn’t exist.
Cole wrote that the State Attorney’s Office had a backlog of records requests, at one point growing to 400 different requests.
Lee’s requests weren’t easy to handle, Cole wrote, often including “personal comments, criticisms, and accusations of bias.”
Still, Cole found that the office took too long to respond to Lee’s requests.
“I was very angry with the unannounced visit of the investigators,” Lee said Monday. “I’m entitled as a citizen to complain, and I’m entitled as a citizen to request public records. … Even if the government entity finds you are a pest, they are still required to give you public records.”
The State Attorney’s Office told Rather it would have the Sleiman records available by Thursday, he said.
State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Jackelyn Barnard said the office will comply with Cole’s judgment.
Lee won part of a similar public records lawsuit against the Police and Fire Pension Fund, but the fund is appealing to the Florida Supreme Court.
Lee said he wished the judge had also found the State Attorney’s Office violated the law intentionally and fined the office $500 for every time the office violated the law, but he’s glad the office will have to pay attorney’s fees and give him the Sleiman file.