By Dan Moffett, Special to Broward Bulldog
A non-profit foundation that bills itself as dedicated to the public’s right to know is a target of angry municipal officials who allege it is actually a money-making tool that uses frivolous public records lawsuits to squeeze payouts from governments in South Florida and across the state.
The small south Palm Beach town of Gulf Stream gave unanimous approval on Oct. 10 to a legal strategy to invoke the federal racketeering statute against two litigious residents, wealthy commercial real estate developer Martin O’Boyle and sculptor Christopher O’Hare, and the group O’Boyle founded, the Citizens Awareness Foundation.
O’Boyle has warned the city that a lawsuit against him could lead to Gulf Stream’s “demise” as a municipality.
Town officials say the class-action RICO suit will allege that O’Boyle used Citizens Awareness Foundation to intimidate, harass and force settlements of meritless public records suits in communities such as Fernandina Beach, Miami, Bradenton, Cutler Bay and Miami Lakes.
“We thought this was about a feud in Gulf Stream,” said Mayor Scott Morgan. “But we learned it was a lot more.”
Commissioners unanimously approved hiring a team of outside lawyers that includes Gerald Richman, a prominent West Palm Beach attorney, who will spearhead the federal RICO case.
Richman told the commission that O’Boyle and his Citizens Awareness Foundation had used a “scorched-earth strategy” against Gulf Stream and many other communities.
“We’re well familiar with their tactics,” he said.
Said Morgan: “All the talk about open public access and white knights on chargers helping the common man is nonsense. This has all been about money.”
‘VOLUME OF CASES’ DESCRIBED
O’Boyle, the wealthy owner of the Deerfield Beach-based commercial real estate firm Commerce Group, founded Citizens Awareness in 2013 and Joel Chandler served as its executive director until the relationship soured after a few months earlier this year. A longtime advocate for Florida’s public records laws, Chandler says he quickly became disillusioned with how CAF was run.
“I thought the foundation as originally presented to me would be a wonderful resource for open government across the state,” Chandler said. “What it ended up being is nothing more than a scheme to generate lawsuits for The O’Boyle Law Firm.”
Chandler said he had a quota of 25 public records lawsuits per week to fill and, though he recommended other attorneys, O’Boyle insisted that all the work be done at The O’Boyle Law Firm, a Deerfield Beach for-profit company run by his son, Jonathan O’Boyle, a lawyer based in Johnstown, Pa.
“The money was in the sheer volume of the cases,” Chandler said. “A lawyer could use a template and file a suit in 15 minutes. We filed hundreds of cases. The typical settlement started at $5,000. It all adds up to millions in legal fees.”
Court papers show that Fernandina Beach paid $5,000 to settle a lawsuit with Citizens Awareness this year. Miami Lakes paid $2,000. Cutler Bay paid $2,250.
In February, Citizens Awareness sued the city of Miami a day after Chandler was turned away at City Hall when he sought to photograph Mayor Tomas Regalado’s appointments calendar.
Marrett Hanna, a lawyer affiliated with The O’Boyle Law Firm and the wife of Mark Hanna, who is O’Hare’s attorney, signed the complaint. The suit is pending in Miami-Circuit Court.
Though O’Boyle and O’Hare filed most of their complaints individually, the town’s federal case will argue they often acted together, town officials said.
In an interview, Chandler said he wanted to work with Gulf Stream, meet with Town Manager William Thrasher, and work out the foundation’s differences over public records.
“O’Boyle was adamant that we wouldn’t do that,” Chandler said. “Marty said we’ll sue and that is all we do.”
Chandler resigned his $120,000 -a-year job at Citizens Awareness in June. Later, O’Boyle sued him alleging Chandler had misused the group’s funds.
Chandler, a longtime government transparency watchdog, denied misusing Citizens Awareness’s funds or any wrongdoing.
“The only things true in the suit against me were my name and that I live in Florida,” said Chandler, 51. The suit is pending.
O’Boyle did not return calls seeking comment for this story but has maintained his goal is to promote transparency in government.
SUIT GREETED WITH APPLAUSE
The Town of Gulf Stream has spent about $370,000 since January in the legal fight against O’Boyle and O’Hare, and billable hours are likely to skyrocket with a new stable of lawyers onboard.
Besides Richman, the town hired a trio of Broward-based lawyers at the Weiss Serota law firm, including former Hollywood City Attorney Jamie Cole. The lawyers specialize in laws governing sober houses — a business venture O’Boyle says he is planning in the town.
Gulf Stream Mayor Morgan says his town has no choice but to defend itself, and if it can win the RICO case, the town can collect attorneys’ fees and triple damages from O’Boyle and O’Hare.
“In my opinion, the town of Gulf Stream has suffered enough,” Morgan said. “The town has been expending funds, and time and resources and morale, and the difficulties of hiring and retaining employees as the result of the scandalously malicious and frivolous lawsuits and public records requests by Mr. O’Hare and Mr. O’Boyle. I think it’s time for the madness to stop.”
Between them, O’Boyle and O’Hare have filed dozens of lawsuits in the state and federal courts against Gulf Stream, as well as more than 1,500 public records requests with the town. The two have joined in at least one of those suits. O’Boyle and O’Hare have both accused the town of being unwilling to negotiate a settlement.
O’Boyle and O’Hare’s original beefs with Gulfstream started several years ago over architectural issues. O’Boyle wanted to redesign the entrance to his home and the town’s architectural board and zoning staff didn’t like the design and said no. O’Hare wanted to put a metal roof on his house, and the town nixed that, too. Things have escalated ever since.
“It’s disappointing and unfortunate when a town sues one of its citizens,” said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents O’Boyle. “It’s unfortunate it has come to that over such a matter as public records.”
In September, O’Boyle told the commission he was prepared to “cost the town a million dollars” in legal fees if commissioners did not negotiate with him. He did not attend the October meeting saying he was out of town, but had an associate deliver a letter to the mayor.
O’BOYLE’S WARNING TO THE TOWN
“In connection with the proposed RICO action, Mr. O’Boyle wishes to provide the commission with a warning that any such launch will be met with an unfriendly response,” the letter said. “Mr. O’Boyle reminds the commission that the mayor has been inviting a fight for some time now. Mr. O’Boyle further reminds the commissioners, that should they decide to embark upon and support the mayor’s grand battle, the likely result will be the demise of Gulf Stream.”
O’Hare told the commission that filing a federal case ensures a long and expensive battle: “I bet you $5 million from now, it’s still going on.” He urged the commission to settle.
“RICO is for criminal activity, O’Hare said. “I didn’t know it was a crime to ask for public records.”
O’Hare said he didn’t know about Citizens Awareness until recent weeks and is unaware of the group’s activities. He said he only filed one lawsuit jointly with O’Boyle but did use The O’Boyle Law Firm.
“Mr. Morgan’s claim that this is all about money is simply not true,” O’Hare said. “There is no profit to be had by asserting your right to a public record in court.”
He told commissioners they will cost the taxpayers millions in legal fees on the RICO strategy: “And it’s not your money.”
A cluster of 20 residents at the October meeting broke into applause over the commission’s decision to file suit in federal court.
“I don’t usually agree with what Mr. O’Hare says, but he did say something with which I fully agree,” resident Anthony Graziano told the commission. “It is our money. And we would like you to spend it fighting these gentlemen.”
Morgan said the RICO action would allow the town to settle many disputes in one case.
“We can either take the approach of defending these individual cases as they come in and bleed to death by a thousand cuts,” he said, “or we can take steps necessary to stop those cases by advancing this case. From the evidence that I’ve seen, it’s a conspiracy of sorts to advance actions that essentially do nothing other than shake down municipal agencies.”
This article first appeared in slightly different form in The Coastal Star, a monthly newspaper that covers nine beachside towns and communities in south Palm Beach County.