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Florida seems to be a magnet for every con man who thinks he can make a fast buck; even when, in reality, he is nothing more than a fraud — albeit, at least sometime, a well-dressed one.
Case in point, the nonprofit Citizens Awareness Foundation was established 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.
Noble cause, not for profit organization, tax-exempt status. What could go wrong?
Enter another, well established, nonprofit news organization, supported by foundations and individual contributions — the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. It seems that while snooping through publically available records and internal communications concerning the activities of Citizens Awareness Foundation, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting discovers that the foundation appears less interested in obtaining records and educating the public than it is in working with a partner law firm to collect cash settlements from every lawsuit filed.
Citizens Awareness Foundation set up shop in the same building as the O’Boyle Law Firm and the Commerce Group; a Deerfield Beach real estate development firm owned by millionaire Martin E. O’Boyle. Further investigation revealed that the two share more than an address. They also share personnel, money and a mandate to sue as many state and local government agencies and businesses as they can for violating Florida’s Sunshine law.
According to court records searched, the foundation and a sister group, Our Public Records LLC, have filed more than 140 lawsuits in 27 Florida counties since January. Each was filed by a lawyer with the O’Boyle Law Firm. However, according to an affidavit filed by the foundation’s first executive director, Joel Chandler, he quit on June 30th over concerns that the close partnership and coordination between Citizens and O’Boyle, “may be criminal, fraudulent and unethical”.
O’Boyle is best known for inundating the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office with more than 1,300 public records requests, and for suing the wealthy town of Gulf Stream, where he lives, after filing 1,200 public records requests.
Citizens Awareness Foundation’s board is composed of employees of the O’Boyle Law Firm and the Commerce Group. According to an email from one board member, the foundation had a quota to refer a minimum of 25 lawsuits per week to the law firm.
“We are new to this process and undertaking an investigation of the facts and circumstances which have resulted in the current controversy,” Fort Lauderdale lawyer representing the Foundation, Mitchell W. Berger, told the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. “We will not litigate this matter in the press on a question-by-question basis and will leave our responses to be filed in the appropriate proceedings where we are sure justice will be done and our clients will be exonerated in the process.”
In published reports in Bradenton, Craig Varn, general counsel for the Florida Engineering Society sent a warning to members claiming that Citizens Awareness Foundation had threatened so many engineers with legal action that it is debatable whether they are truly seeking records or just attempting to obtain legal fees for a violation of the requirement to do so. The road-building industry in Florida also has been swamped with public records requests and lawsuits from Citizens Awareness Foundation.
The foundation targeted governments, big and small, but also filed complaints against obscure companies contracted by government agencies; exploiting an April 2013 amendment to state law that requires private companies holding public records to make them available. The records requests often came in over the weekend.
After the 2013 amendment passed, Martin O’Boyle contacted Chandler, a well-known open government activist, about starting Citizens Awareness Foundation. Chandler, who lives in Lakeland, had worked as a volunteer his entire career. O’Boyle offered him a $120,000 annual salary, a company car and health insurance.
“I went from being completely broke to getting paid $10,000 a month,” Chandler said. “It was a very cool gig.”
The foundation was incorporated on January 27th. The O’Boyle Law Firm opened on February 10th. They both listed the same address in Deerfield Beach on incorporation records. Martin O’Boyle’s son, Pennsylvania lawyer Jonathan O’Boyle, was listed as the law firm’s director. Jonathan O’Boyle is not licensed to practice law in Florida, and records show he may have been acting as the firm’s full-time managing director and supervising other lawyers. Under Florida Bar rules, lawyers supervising cases must be licensed in the state.
Worried about the damage he had inadvertently caused, Chandler contacted defendants in the lawsuits and offered his help. Citizen Awareness Foundation sued him for breaches of contract and fiduciary duty.
Since Chandler’s departure, Citizen Awareness Foundation and Our Public Records LLC have filed 70 more lawsuits around the state, according to research done by Tristram Korten and Trevor Aaronson with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Among the latest defendants: a Catholic charity in Sarasota County, an accountant in Hillsborough County, and ChildNet, a nonprofit in Broward County whose mission is to “protect abused, abandoned and neglected children”.
How does this type of scam affect you? When individuals abuse the system, it hinders reporters, and others, from making inquiries based on a search for the truth – not a search for personal profits. Inundating the custodian of public records with volumes of questionable requests for the purpose of provoking a claim that “the custodian was unresponsive” is counterproductive and proves nothing.
To the extent that private businesses are bound by the same requirements of public offices, as it relates to certain government contracts, the State runs the risk of alienating good skill and product resources, tainting otherwise profitable contracts for vendors with an unnecessary burden, and driving the cost of administration higher — which ultimately means the taxpayer pays more for government services than needed.
Photo credits: © 2014 Miami Herald and Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Tags: abuse of tax exempt clearances, attorney abuse, frivolous lawsuits, Joel Chandler, Martin E O'Boyle, profiteer, public records request
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