TALLAHASSEE -- Senate President Don Gaetz is no ally of trial lawyers.
Since joining the Legislature in 2006, Gaetz has consistently tried to limit damage awards, which also limits lawyers’ fees.
Just last year, the Panhandle Republican, who made his fortune in the hospice industry, supported a bill shielding hospitals from liability and limiting expert witness testimony in medical malpractice cases.
But this year, Gaetz’s priorities include SB 1648, which could improve business for attorneys specializing in public records law suits, a group that includes a person close to Gaetz.
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His son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
“Matt Gaetz has gained public notice as an attorney leading fights for open government,” his website, mattgaetz.com, states. “When politicians and bureaucrats violated the public records laws, Matt took them to court and held government accountable.”
The younger Gaetz earned $48,000 as an attorney in 2012, according to his most recent financial disclosure, though it wasn’t his sole source of income.
But if SB 1648 passes, public records law could become more lucrative. Currently, lawyers are only compensated if they win such cases. Under the bill, lawyers would win “reasonable costs” for each count on which they prevail, even if they lose the overall case.
More importantly, the bill would allow lawyers to be paid for time spent negotiating for the legal fees they win in cases. Currently, they are only paid for the time spent on the case.
“It’s a huge issue,” said Joel Chandler, an open records advocate who advised Don Gaetz on the bill. “You end up winning a case, but your attorney can’t get paid until a settlement is reached. It’s a vicious loophole that takes terrible advantage of newspapers and regular folks trying to enforce their rights.”
On Monday, the legislative counsel for the Florida League of Cities warned a House committee that the legislation would lead to more lawsuits against government. Kraig Conn mentioned the 200 public records lawsuits (including against the sheriffs of Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the city of St. Petersburg) that Chandler has filed in the past seven years.
“We’re trying to balance the public’s right to know with the right to protect the public treasury,” Conn said.
Chandler said he doesn’t make money off the cases and sues on behalf of residents throughout Florida who have been wrongfully denied records. The Lakeland man said he likes the Senate bill for its other provisions, such as training all government employees in public records, because many denials of records are made because of ignorance of the law.
The bill also puts in code what’s been established in case law, such as not requiring records requests to be made in writing and limiting charges for producing records.
Chandler expressed surprise at his powerful support. “It’s surreal,” he said. “We’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum. It’s kind of remarkable that I’ve had any influence on this at all.”
This is the second year that Gaetz has promoted the bill, and it still appears to have little support in the House.
The sponsor of the House companion bill, Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, urged the House Governmental Operations committee to pass the bill Monday, which it did unanimously. But he said the bill needed more work.
“We want to make sure if [the public] want access, they get access but we don’t want to create litigation for the lawyers. There are abuses,” he said.
It has two more committees to pass before a House floor vote.
None of those concerns about legal fees came up as SB 1648 sailed through the Senate, passing 39-0 on March 26. It was among the first bills to pass, a privilege usually reserved for the top priorities of the Senate president. Yet it wasn’t listed in the priorities that Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford announced before the session.
On the day the bill passed, its official sponsor, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, lauded Gaetz’s support for open records as a “hallmark” of his presidency, but didn’t mention the legal fees or that it was a Gaetz priority.
Early last month, when asked who requested the bill, Ring mentioned the First Amendment Foundation, not Gaetz.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the public records nonprofit. “It was brought to me in draft form by [Don] Gaetz’s staff at the beginning of session.”
Still, she said, she supports the law. “These cases are expensive, and without fees, [lawyers] wouldn’t take them. Legal action is the only way to protect the constitutional right of access.”
She didn’t think Gaetz was championing the bill to benefit his son, who is running in 2016 to replace his father in the Senate.
“I can’t imagine he’d do that to feather his son’s nest,” she said.
Sen. Gaetz’s spokeswoman stated in an email that the attorney’s fees provision in the bill originated with Chandler.
“When the public records bill didn’t pass last year, the President asked our staff to work on it over the summer and I know he met with Mr. Chandler again this February,” Katie Betta wrote.
Gaetz wouldn’t comment on whether he had spoken to his son about the bill or considered how it would affect his law practice.
Asked twice about the bill by one Times/Herald reporter, Matt Gaetz walked away without comment. But in response to another Times/Herald reporter, Gaetz said he knew nothing about the legislation.
The bill spotlights a curious paradox: Matt Gaetz is a public records attorney, but introduced legislation in the House this year that would seal from public view the court records of “stand your ground” cases in which charges are dropped.
Herald/Times reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed.