Bill Di Scipio drives his Prius 20 miles every day to a warehouse in Opa-locka, where he runs a manufacturing company. He moved to the Ranches from Northern California. He had built a successful business and decided he liked the "quirky little town" with decent schools and low taxes in a rural setting. In 2006, he paid just under $1 million for a 3,000-square-foot home.
At the time, Di Scipio had no idea that Corrections Corporation of America was looking to build a prison on land it owned in Southwest Ranches. The company had agreed to pay the town a fee for each theoretical prisoner it would one day house, if only it could get a contract with a government agency.
In June 2011, after Di Scipio's home had lost two-thirds of its value in the slumped housing market, the town and CCA finally found a potential source for all those lucrative inmates: U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced that it had tentatively selected the site for a new detention center.
In July, Di Scipio got a prerecorded "robocall" from the Florida Immigrant Coalition, which was unhappy with that idea. The Obama administration's ramped-up focus on deportations, the fact that apprehended immigrants are increasingly placed in the hands of a few large corporations, and the fueling of such deportations by checking arrest information against immigration databases have created a perfect storm of unrest for immigration advocates nationwide. Southwest Ranches' new detention center was sure to provide some collateral damage in the form of broken families and crushed dreams.
Di Scipio stays away from all that. But when he got the robocall, he had questions of his own — including why he, a homeowner, hadn't known that this project was in the works. He decided to go to the Town Council and find out why. This led to the exchange with attorney Poliakoff and Di Scipio's realization that his questions were unwelcome at this stage in the negotiations. It looked to him like the Town Council was ramming through a major project under a veil of secrecy, duping citizens whose property values would soon plummet. Reaching for the moral high ground of a truth-seeking journalist, he taught himself about public-records requests at a time in midlife when another man might have shut up and bought a Porsche.
One of his first requests was for supporting material backing up Poliakoff's claim that the feds and CCA had "asked" the town not to discuss the facility. For a while, he didn't hear anything. So he grew restless and asked for more. Emails, billing records, documents. While the immigrant coalition worked to spread its own message, he took his fight straight to the desk of the town clerk.
In his free time, Di Scipio sorts through the reams of requests he's submitted, which he keeps in an overflowing binder. When the requests were met with silence a few times, he started submitting even more of them, with intentionally awful spelling and grammar, under the name "Frank Nurt." Nobody would want to answer these.
Di Scipio grins. "They have to."
He knows that public-records law is on his side, even if he pisses off town officials in the process.
"This is fun as hell," he admits. Mention of his name now elicits an audible groan from the Southwest Ranches clerk.
Di Scipio is unfazed. "I could get older and sit here and whine or get out and be the agent of change."
A few months ago, he finally got an answer to his challenge of the "cone of silence." Poliakoff forwarded him a copy of an email the town attorney had sent to council members and staff in June, as Southwest Ranches was still competing with other cities to win ICE's selection.
"As you know we are in the final months to see if we can land the new Federal Immigration Facility," Poliakoff wrote in the email. "Florida City is flipping over all stones to try to take the lead, but their strategy with the press is actually backfiring since residents are now [coming] out in opposition... which will inevitably cause Homeland Security to shy away from their site since they do not want controversy right now."
Poliakoff wrote that officials should expect calls about the matter, "since the sharks are beginning to circle... If [we get] a ton of calls we will issue a carefully crafted press release, but until then, the less we say the better off we will be."
Poliakoff later claimed his observation that "the sharks are beginning to circle" referred to other municipalities and corporations that had been competing for the contract until the last minute, and not — as Di Scipio believes — to angry townspeople. "Look at the date of that email [June 7]," Poliakoff says today. "There was no Bill Di Scipio. At that time, none of [the protesters] were around. None of them existed."