The nonprofit Citizens Awareness Foundation was founded to “empower citizens to exercise their right to know,” according to its mission statement. The South Florida millionaire backing the foundation hired one of the state’s most prominent public records activists to run it, rented office space, and pledged to pay the legal fees to make sure people had access to government records.
But a review of court records and internal communications obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting shows that the foundation is less interested in obtaining records and educating the public than in working with a partner law firm to collect cash settlements from every lawsuit filed….
The O’Boyle law firm has filed more than 140 requests on behalf of the foundation and a related group this year, including barrages of requests against engineers and road builders. The general counsel of the Florida Engineering Federation wrote in May that it was “debatable whether they are truly seeking records or just attempting to obtain legal fees for a violation,” a concern shared elsewhere:
“It’s a sad game of ‘gotcha,’ the only purpose of which is to generate an attorney fee claim rather than obtain any actual public records,” said Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association.
A former executive director of the foundation has resigned, citing ethical concerns. Among numerous small government contractors targeted by the demands are charities and social service providers; an environmental remediation firm says the law firm included a nondisclosure demand that would prevent it from comparing notes with others to receive the fee demands. Ten years ago we reported on a practice in California in which bounty-hunting requesters aimed public records requests at school districts in early summer, then followed with legal fee requests based on the districts’ having missed the short deadline for responding.