A group that claims to be a champion of transparency has been filing a slew of lawsuits against Florida's government agencies, ostensibly to force the agencies to comply with public records laws. But just how much money has the group won? They're not willing to say.
Over the past few weeks, the Citizens Awareness Foundation, Inc. has faced accusations that the real reason it's filing so many lawsuits is to win cash settlements, not to serve the public interest. When New Times asked CAFI to show us some of the records they sought and how much they settled for, the open records group denied our repeated requests.
CAFI's former president Joel Chandler says he quit the six-figure gig after figuring out that is was a racket. (CAFI says he was fired for misusing funds.) He says the way it works is this: A public records request is sent to a government agency. If that group doesn't respond in a timely manner, ignores it, or illegally denies it, CAFI files a lawsuit. And quite often, it's cheaper for a government agency to settle than to fight it out in court, so CAFI gets paid.
In theory, this is a great way to keep government honest and to take records requests seriously.
"I really believed in it at first and there were definitely legitimate lawsuits," Chandler tells New Times. "It's actually a great idea if done ethically. It's an idea that can be ethical and also make some money, too. But then lawsuits were getting filed that I didn't know about, that I didn't approve of and it spiraled."
Chandler says he's concerned that abuse of open records laws could lead to a tightening down to prevent future predatory lawsuits that ultimately have to be paid for by the public.
CAFI is founded and funded by Palm Beach millionaire Marty O'Boyle, whose son's law firm handles the lawsuits. More about that relationship and the questionable funneling of open record lawsuit money can be read here and here.
New Times reached out to Denise DeMartini, CAFI's current president. But the head of the open records group refused to comment and directed all inquiries to attorney Mitchell Berger, who defended the group's practice.
"We request records just like journalists, just like newspapers do," he says.
But out of 140 lawsuits in 27 counties, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, CAFI doesn't publish much of what it finds. The group's website only has a handful of posts about the records it requested.
When asked which records were sought that led to the 140 lawsuits and how much money was won in settlements, Berger said CAFI would share the information. After all, these settlements are all paid for by the taxpayers.
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But after two weeks, the only information CAFI has been willing to share is a partial list of agencies with whom the group has either settled or dismissed. CAFI refused to divulge which records were sought in those cases and how much the group won in the settlements.
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