The following article from the 1/8/98, electronic edition of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel is part of an analysis to determine the similarities between the modus operandi of the Florida Bar and organized crime (utilizing a series of Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel articles on government lawyer legal fees.)


  1. Getting detailed information about how much taxpayers are spending on local government legal fees isn't always easy. Several cities and local agencies quickly responded to the Sun-Sentinel's public records requests by producing spreadsheets listing the amount spent on lawyers and how much each law firm received. But others weren't as efficient. Some, including the Palm Beach County School District, printed out inches-thick computer lists of every vendor paid by the legal department.

  2. Other government agencies took months to produce information. The data was not readily available, they said, and had to be compiled from scratch.

  3. The Broward School District, for example, spent 21/2 months compiling a list of in-house and private lawyers and how much they were paid over the last two years. The district never provided information for 1995, even after the Sun-Sentinel filed a second public records request.

  4. The Broward Sheriff's Office, the North Broward Hospital District and Sunrise each took about two months to provide similar information.

  5. Some cities used tactics that impeded or slowed down access to the records. A few attempted to charge excessive fees, and in some cases, may have violated Florida's public records law.

  6. Plantation officials initially tried to bill the newspaper $130.30 for research time to compile a one-page breakdown of legal costs since 1995. The bill included sales tax.

  7. Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said such attempts to charge sales tax are inappropriate and may be illegal.

  8. "I've never heard of sales tax on a public records request," Peterson said. "They're not selling you anything. They're providing you with a service that is a statutory duty."

  9. After protest, Plantation's finance director agreed not to charge for the information. But the city later sent the newspaper a bill for $45.51 for an updated list. It charged for two hours' labor and "operating costs."

  10. In Coral Springs, officials initially wanted to charge $100 for research to provide a breakout of legal costs. The newspaper disputed the charge and paid $17.10 in copying fees, but it took two months to get information.

  11. Hallandale tried to charge $69.50 for a one-page summary of legal expenses. Officials said the bill included administrative costs for an assistant city manager's time. The city withdrew the charge after the newspaper protested.

  12. In Pembroke Pines, officials said they would have to impose a "research charge" for a reporter to view the city attorney's bills. They cited a city ordinance that allows them to charge if a person spends more than a half hour looking at public records. Under the ordinance, the city can bill for the pro-rated salary of the person who sits in the room while the records are reviewed -- plus a 30 percent surcharge.

  13. The Sun-Sentinel instead opted to have the bills copied at 15 cents a page. Peterson, of the First Amendment Foundation, said the 30 percent surcharge is inappropriate and most likely a violation of Florida's public records law.

  14. She also said cities that specify how long the public can view a record for free need to be careful when they set time limits. "They should have some justification for how they came up with 15 minutes or 30 minutes," Peterson said. "It cannot be arbitrary, it must be justified."

  15. Sunrise has a similar ordinance that allows officials to charge labor fees if a request takes more than 15 minutes to research or copy. Officials there did not impose the fee. They copied the records at no charge.

  16. However, they blocked out narrative information from a law firm's bills in a pending case they believed contained "mental impressions" or litigation strategy. They said Florida's public records law exempts the information from disclosure until the lawsuit is over.

  17. Peterson disputed the city's interpretation. "That's more than a stretch," she said. "We're talking about billing information here. The public has a right to know not only how much it costs, but what it is being billed for."

Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South Florida Interactive, Inc.
This Web page is one in a SERIES OF WEB PAGES examining the modus operandi of the Florida Bar.