By Dan Moffett
Gulf Stream’s legal offensive against Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare suffered a huge setback late last month when a West Palm Beach judge threw out the town’s federal racketeering suit against the two men.
U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra said that, while he was sympathetic with the town’s “very difficult situation” because of the hundreds of public records requests O’Boyle and O’Hare had filed, their actions did not meet the legal standards for suing under the RICO statute.
Marra, in effect, told the town to fight it out with the two litigious residents in the state court and forget the federal class-action case.
O’Boyle and O’Hare, the judge said, “had the absolute right under current Florida law to file public records requests and then file lawsuits if requests went unanswered.”
O’Hare said he was elated with the decision. He said the town’s suit against him had strained his family and hurt his business.
“I can’t begin to tell you how debilitating this RICO accusation has been for me and my family,” O’Hare said. “I have had to do a lot of explaining, sometimes to perfect strangers but also to state officials and others involved in my artificial reef efforts.”
Mayor Scott Morgan, a lawyer, said the defeat shouldn’t be construed as validation for the behavior of the town’s two most zealous critics.
“While we are disappointed in the court’s decision, it is important to note that the judge was not excusing the defendants’ actions,” Morgan said. “Rather, he simply held that the filing of public records requests and lawsuits, whether malicious or not, does not constitute ‘racketeering’ as defined in the federal racketeering law, and that the abuse of the public records act is for the Florida state courts to determine.”
In his nine-page decision issued June 30, Marra also said that the mere threat of filing suit for legal fees over the records requests was not grounds for proving extortion or conspiracy, as the town’s attorneys had claimed. The judge dismissed the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act suit with prejudice, meaning the court believes it unlikely it can be amended to pass legal muster.
The town hired West Palm Beach attorney Gerald Richman to pursue the RICO strategy in October and filed the federal suit in February.
Beyond Gulf Stream, the class-action suit alleged that O’Boyle used a group he founded called the Citizens Awareness Foundation to extort settlements from frivolous public records requests made to municipalities and businesses across the state — communities including Miami, Bradenton, Cutler Bay and Fernandina Beach. The suit claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements were funneled to The O’Boyle Law Firm.
O’Hare says he had nothing to do with the Citizens Awareness Foundation or any conspiracy, and the town was using the RICO case to distract from its mistakes. He says the dozens of suits he’s filed against the town are not frivolous but over legitimate issues.
“The town is doing a great many things unfairly,” O’Hare said. “That’s one reason they are being sued.”
Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents Martin O’Boyle, said the town was wrong to “sue one of its citizens.”
“It’s unfortunate when it comes to this,” Berger said. “When someone asks for records, give them the records.”
Jonathan O’Boyle, O’Boyle’s son and a Pennsylvania attorney who is a director with The O’Boyle Law Firm in Deerfield Beach, said he expected the RICO suit would be dismissed and blames the town for creating its own problems.
Gulf Stream has dozens of cases pending with O’Boyle and O’Hare in the state courts. Officials say the town has spent at least $1 million in legal fees over the last two years fighting with the two men. Morgan said the town will move forward with its other complaints and hope for better results.
“The town of Gulf Stream has simultaneously been advancing its claims against these defendants in the state courts,” the mayor said, “where we have already had some success, and we will continue those actions.”
By Dan Moffett
I have been very careful to make sure my legal complaints against the Town were thoughtful, valid and worthy of the courts time. Mayor Morgan labeled them all "scandalously malicious and frivolous." Now the Town's RICO complaint has apparently been determined to be frivolous. How ironic.
Mayor Morgan, through his personal, and later Town counsel Robert Sweetapple, first offered to exclude me a year ago from this RICO complaint if I dropped all my lawsuits against the Town. I did not take him up on his offer. Last October the Mayor and Town counsel Richman assured the other Commissioners that the RICO threat would make me withdraw all my complaints and cause me to stop asking for public records. Additionally they anticipated that a RICO judgment would get them all their legal expenses back three time over. Perhaps naively, I thought my right to free speech was more important than the inconvenience of defending against a RICO claim. I had no idea just how debilitating and costly that defense would be.
This experience has been very stressful for my family and me. The financial strain of defending myself, the uncertainty of a possible devastating outcome and the shock of being falsely accused have taken a toll. I thank God Judge Marra finally put an end to it.
I consider Mayor Morgan's RICO lawsuit against me and his subsequent "bully pulpit" publicity efforts through letters to residents, and interviews on TV and newspapers to be part of a continuing campaign of retaliation against me for speaking out. I have made many public record requests about the Police Officer who trespassed into my home over three years ago and other questionable activities by the Town. I have spoken publicly at Town meetings about issues Town leaders may find uncomfortable. The Town wished to chill such public speech by claiming it was part of some organized crime effort. Thankfully the Judge ruled otherwise.
Rather than admit past wrongdoing, agreeing to follow state law in the future and acting like a real democratic government, Town leaders instead choose to stall the inevitable by ignoring settlement offers and prolonging a legal strategy apparently solely intended to "save face."
This RICO complaint may have been born more out of hubris than actual government purpose. Consequently the notion of fair government has been besmirched and unfortunately Town residents will be stuck with the bill.