Federal judge tosses out town’s RICO suit against residents seeking public records

By Dan Moffett, The Coastal Star 

Martin O'Boyle, left, and Christopher O'Hare

Martin O’Boyle, left, and Christopher O’Hare

Gulf Stream’s legal offensive against residents Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare suffered a huge setback late last month when a federal judge in West Palm Beach 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 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.”

Gulf Stream is a tiny, wealthy seaside town in south Palm Beach County. Its mayor, attorney Scott Morgan, 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 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 ran 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.”

The Coastal Star is a monthly newspaper covering the South Florida coastal communities of South Palm Beach, Hypoluxo Island, Manalapan, Ocean Ridge, Briny Breezes, Gulf Stream, Highland Beach and coastal neighborhoods of Delray Beach and Boca Raton.

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