By Dan Moffett
In their federal racketeering lawsuit against Martin O’Boyle and Christopher O’Hare, attorneys for the town of Gulf Stream allege the two men have conspired to use the state’s public records laws as weapons to extort legal fees from hundreds of municipalities and contractors across the state.
Beyond Gulf Stream, the RICO complaint cites similar records assaults by O’Boyle in places far removed from South Florida, one of them in another small, affluent seaside community more than a thousand miles way.
In 2007, during a dispute with the borough of Longport in his native New Jersey, O’Boyle filed so many demands for public records that “the clerk went to the emergency room because of the stress she attributed to the flood of (Open Public Records Act) requests,” the suit says.
Gulf Stream officials know all about that kind of stress. Town Clerk Rita Taylor says she has been working seven days a week for the last two years to keep up with workload generated by O’Boyle and O’Hare.
Town Manager William Thrasher says these days he devotes virtually all his time to lawsuits and records requests. “There’s no end in sight. My job description has been altered forever,” Thrasher said. “When you look back, you get discouraged.”
The 49-page class-action civil suit claims that “the Town of Gulf Stream has become the epicenter of the RICO Enterprises’ scheme” and has fielded about 2,000 public records requests since 2013 from the two residents.
RICO is an acronym for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
O’Boyle and O’Hare, separately and together, have sued the town dozens of times in the state and federal courts over grievances involving building codes, campaign signage and assorted constitutional rights, to name a few.
Thrasher says the town has spent more than $1 million to satisfy records requests and pay lawyers since hostilities with the two men began.
West Palm Beach attorney Gerald Richman, who filed the suit on Gulf Stream’s behalf, accuses the two men of engaging in predatory “scorched-earth” tactics intended to intimidate and collect settlements. “It’s extortion, plain and simple,” he said.
Jonathan O’Boyle, O’Boyle’s son and a key co-defendant in the RICO complaint, believes the town’s lawsuit will have a lasting detrimental effect on open government.
“It is absolutely ludicrous,” he said. “This filing is the boogeyman that will be used to chill citizens from seeking public records for years to come.”
The town’s attorneys allege that Jonathan O’Boyle, who is licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania but not Florida, violated the Florida Bar’s requirements when he ran The O’Boyle Law Firm in Deerfield Beach and supervised hundreds of public records suits for the firm’s nonprofit client, Citizens Awareness Foundation Inc.
Another central figure in the town’s case is Joel Chandler, who worked for Martin O’Boyle last year as executive director of Citizens Awareness. Chandler had a falling out with O’Boyle after a few months and has been publicly critical of the O’Boyles and CAFI as a money-making scheme that had nothing to do with legitimate use of public records. Chandler was not named as a defendant in the suit and is expected to testify on behalf of the town.
In an interview with The Coastal Star, Chandler said his relationship with the O’Boyles broke down after he was ordered to fulfill a weekly quota of 25 public records suits.
Chandler said he joined the O’Boyles to promote open government, not to take part in a “money-making scheme” that may have damaged the cause of transparency instead.
“The money was in the sheer volume of the cases,” Chandler said. “It all adds up to millions in legal fees.”
The RICO action claims that lawyers from the O’Boyle firm filed boilerplate public records suits against municipalities or contractors doing business with municipalities, then pressed for settlements. Fernandina Beach paid $5,000 to settle one of the CAFI suits, according to court documents, Miami Lakes paid $2,000 and Cutler Bay $2,250.
Besides CAFI, Gulf Stream’s attorneys say Martin O’Boyle used his Commerce Group corporation in Deerfield Beach to launch other sham public records organizations, such as Stopdirtygovernment LLC, Our Public Records, Public Awareness Institute, Inc.
Contractors doing business with local governments also were hit with records requests. In April 2014, the Wantman Group, a West Palm Beach engineering company, received an email from “An Onomy” seeking insurance documents for work with the South Florida Management District. Three weeks later, according to the complaint, the O’Boyle Law Firm sued Wantman on behalf CAFI, demanding attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $3,923.
Wantman has joined Gulf Stream in the RICO suit and the town’s attorneys hope to find other plaintiffs around the state.
Suit cites false names used
Though O’Hare says he has joined with O’Boyle in only one lawsuit, the town’s attorneys maintain the relationship between the two men runs deep when it comes to assailing the town: “O’Hare has been a client of the O’Boyle Law Firm generally, and Jonathan O’Boyle in particular, since the firm’s inception in January 2014,” the suit says. “The O’Boyle Law Firm represents him (O’Hare) in approximately 10 of the public records suits he has brought against the Town, with the first such suit filed by the O’Boyle Law Firm on his behalf on Jan. 22, 2014.”
The RICO case, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra, claims that O’Hare often filed dozens of records requests in a single day, and he filed hundreds of them under fictitious or fraudulent names to avoid special services charges from the town. Some of them were bastardizations of town officials — “Billy Trasher” for Town Manager Thrasher, “Bobby Gangrene” for Commissioner Bob Ganger, “Groan Orthwein” for Commissioner Joan Orthwein — and others outright fabrications: Irnawaty Tirtarahardja, Janto Djajaputra, Hokuikekai Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele, Prigs Hypocrites and Wyatt Burp.
O’Boyle and O’Hare blame the town for violating its own rules and blocking lawful attempts to ensure governmental transparency.
“All this stuff would go away and go back to normal,” O’Hare has told town commissioners, “if you’d just tell staff to follow the law.”
O’Boyle’s attorney, Mitchell Berger of Berger Singerman in Fort Lauderdale, calls it “unfortunate” that the town has decided to file a RICO suit, “instead of just giving the records that were requested.”
Legislation being considered
Worries about public records abuses have reached the Florida Legislature, where Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, are sponsoring a bill that would try to prevent frivolous requests and unwarranted lawsuits aimed at forcing cash settlements.
“I am an unwavering supporter of comprehensive public access laws, so citizens can hold their government accountable,” Simpson said. “In these cases, though, it is clear that the rights of private citizens and hardworking business owners are being trampled by some unscrupulous people bent on getting rich off a new scam.”
Beshears said he was particularly concerned about cases where small municipal governments with limited resources were overwhelmed by heavy-handed demands for records.
“In each case that I’ve reviewed, government agencies have the records that are being requested,” said Beshears. “Instead of simply asking the records custodian at the state agency, spam-like emails are sent or even worse, intimidating individuals wearing cameras go onto private property and make demands of office staff that have had no training in our public records laws. This isn’t right and we’ve got to put an end to it.”
Advocates for transparency now have worries, too. They are concerned that an overreacting Legislature may damage Florida’s Sunshine Law, widely regarded as one of the nation’s best open government laws.
In Tallahassee, Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, says the watchdog group is hoping to find “middle ground” with Simpson and Beshears, so that legislative fixes don’t go too far.
It’s not a small irony that the story of the Gulf Stream RICO case actually took root in Tallahassee in the summer of 2013, when Chandler went to visit the FAF’s president and met Martin O’Boyle for the first time.
“My dear friend and colleague, Barbara Petersen of the Florida First Amendment Foundation told me she was meeting Marty for breakfast and I invited myself,” Chandler wrote in a blog post from that July. “Since then we’ve spent many hours together discussing open government and how citizens might better exercise that important right.”
Chandler says he now regrets the encounter.