February 6, 2017
Punishing reporters. Blocking access to government records. These things should scare anyone who professes to love freedom.
Judicial opinions should have consequences. I fought government secrecy and won.
Three times now, I’ve had my day in court. And three times I’ve won against an abusive Florida elected official who charged me illegal and retaliatory public records fees in response to my investigative reporting.
But almost three years later, my attorneys have yet to be paid.
My lawyers won. But they have yet to be paid. The elected official who lost has paid more than $120,000 in legal fees – all taxpayer money – to his lawyers.
The loser, the government, is supposed to pay the legal fees of an aggrieved citizen. I have no other remedy under the current law.
Now, Senate Bill 80, filed by Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) would eliminate mandatory payment of legal fees for a citizen who wins a public records case in court. Going to court should be the last resort. But without enforcement of the public records law, what choice does a citizen have?
If anything, my case should show that the current system under the public records law is horribly broken and open to major abuse. SB 80 guts weak enforcement of the public records law we have now.
Government in secret is not government by the people. Abuse of power can go unchecked when we don’t have meaningful enforcement of the public records law.
After my investigative reporting exposed abusive conduct by an elected official who sought to punish the political candidate who ran against him, he retaliated by charging illegal and high fees for public records to shield himself from further embarrassment and scrutiny by the public.
In short, he jacked up the public records fees because he didn’t want the public to know. With no other recourse or anyone to enforce the law on my behalf, I went to court.
First, I won after a preliminary hearing before Collier Circuit Judge Fred Hardt. The elected Clerk, Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock, would not accept the circuit judge’s ruling and demanded an expensive trial. Then, I won at trial. The elected Clerk appealed and sought to overturn the judge’s ruling. Then, I won again on appeal. That was January 2016.
In May, my lawyer, Giovani Mesa, told a reporter he expected a fee hearing in a matter of weeks. That hasn’t happened.
The Clerk has stalled the attorney fee hearing for more than a year now. The Clerk has sought to litigate the fees, seeking discovery. He knowns my lawyers, at considerable risk, took my case on contingent fee. Any time they spend litigating the recovery of legal fees is like flushing money down the drain. It’s not money they can recoup under the law. Only the fees in the actual case can be recovered.
The Clerk offered to settle – offering $10,000 to us to cover the legal fees. It’s a grand insult given that he’s spent 10 times that amount using taxpayer money.
As the aggrieved citizen, I can collect no money in the case, even though it has cost me an enormous amount of time. The elected Clerk used the threat of his appeal to intimidate me from seeking additional public records, saying he reserved the right to retroactively seek higher fees from me if he won the appeal. Chilling.
Last year I drove to Tallahassee to speak against this proposed law filed by Steube. Since that time, citizens from around the state have emailed me about their own difficulties obtaining public records. Some have felt helpless in the face of stonewalling and abuse by government bureaucrats who are looking out for their own jobs or to protect their elected bosses or the interests of powerful lobbyists.
Government in the dark is wrong. Citizens, not the bureaucracies and big government represented by the league of Cities, need protection and enforcement of the public records law.
Every new exemption to the public records law is a costly regulation. Republicans who profess to support smaller government and less regulation should vote against this law and seek better enforcement of the existing law. Corruption and taxpayer waste flourish when public records are hard to obtain.
Here’s an idea: Allow judges to fine elected and public officials who violate the law and award punitive damages to wronged citizens. [READ MORE]
Gina Edwards is a national award-winning investigative reporter and the founder of the investigative news site WatchdogCity.com.