A Pasco County senator on Wednesday filed legislation to protect businesses that do work for government agencies from being harassed with lawsuits over public records violations.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, explained in a statement that “scammers use Florida’s open government and sunshine laws to target and intimidate job creators for unjust financial gain.”
“Many Florida business owners contract with and perform services for public agencies,” said Senator Simpson. “Last summer, I learned that across Florida, individuals are approaching some of these businesses to make public records requests for only one purpose: creating confusion for the business owners that leads to frivolous lawsuits to obtain cash settlements. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) uncovered details about these cases that are deeply troubling.
“I am an unwavering supporter of comprehensive public access laws so citizens can hold their government accountable. 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 this scam.”
He filed SB 390 to put the onus of producing documents on the public agency for which a contracted service is being performed.
“A request to inspect or copy public records relating to a public agency’s contract for services must be made directly to the public agency,” the bill says. “If the public agency does not possess the requested records, the public agency shall immediately notify the contractor of the request, and the contractor must provide the records to the public agency or allow the records to be inspected or copied within a reasonable time.”
A previous attempt to pass a bill died last session. The current effort will be sponsored by state Rep. Halsey Beshears, a Monticello Republican, in the House.
“In each case that I’ve reviewed, government agencies have the records that are being requested,” said Rep. 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.”
The First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based open government watchdog group, has not yet taken an official position on the new bill.