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.)
GATHERING THE PROOF NO EASY TASK
BY JENNI BERGAL and JAY WEAVER Staff Writers
Sun-Sentinel Copyright (c) 1998, Sun-Sentinel Company and South
Florida Interactive, Inc.
- 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
- Other government agencies took months to produce
The data was not readily available, they said, and had to be compiled
- 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.
- The Broward Sheriff's Office, the North Broward Hospital
District and Sunrise each took about two months to provide similar
- Some cities used tactics that impeded or slowed down access
the records. A few attempted to charge excessive fees, and in some
cases, may have violated Florida's public records law.
- 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.
- Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment
Foundation in Tallahassee, said such attempts to charge sales tax are
inappropriate and may be illegal.
- "I've never heard of sales tax on a public records
Peterson said. "They're not selling you anything. They're providing
you with a service that is a statutory duty."
- 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."
- In Coral Springs, officials initially wanted to charge $100
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
- 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.
- In Pembroke Pines, officials said they would have to impose
"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.
- The Sun-Sentinel instead opted to have the bills copied at
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.
- She also said cities that specify how long the public can
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."
- Sunrise has a similar ordinance that allows officials to
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.
- 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
- 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."
This Web page is one in a SERIES OF WEB PAGES
examining the modus operandi of the Florida Bar.
The home page of this Web site is entitled LEGAL
REFORM THROUGH TRANSFORMING THE DISCIPLINE OF LAW INTO A SCIENCE