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Florida Man Fights Extensive Public Records Request Abuse

The City of Homestead has a torrid reputation and a pattern of willfully refusing to comply with the public records law. Homestead is a little town at the southern end of Miami-Dade County, rarely receiving the scrutiny it deserves as a cesspool of public corruption and maleficence.

I have used the records request process, as a pre-discovery method for investigating my civil rights claims. Homestead has failed to comply with the public records law on the majority of the nearly one hundred requests I have filed.

Homestead has a pattern and practice of unlawful noncompliance as it relates to the records law including but not limited to: excessively overcharging for records, claiming inapplicable exemptions, creating automatic and/or unreasonable delays in production, claiming incriminating records do not exist, falsifying records and destruction of records.

Florida has some of the strictest public records laws in the nation. The records law is thoroughly explained in the Government in the Sunshine Manual (GSM), and the city owns several copies. You could be easily fooled into thinking otherwise, based on the behavior and actions of Homestead and their attorneys.

I hope the information provided herein, while extensive by nature, will educate the readers on the public records law and how some public entities create costly issues.

PINAC published the original story of my abuse by Homestead officer Alejandro Murguido in feature picture above, beginning in 2012. I was falsely arrested in April 2013, after attempting to file a complaint, and charged for simply asking my neighbor not to speed and recklessly drive his city-owned police car, in our community. Children regularly play in the street, and Murguido had previously asked me to contact him directly versus filing a formal complaint with his department.

I met with Homestead Chief of Police Alexander Rolle to file a complaint in February 2014. All false charges against me had been dismissed shortly before the meeting.

Rolle brought IA Detective Antonio Aquino into this meeting, after being presented evidence Aquino and Murguido had colluded against me. I wisely recorded the meeting, and Rolle subsequently destroyed the documents given him, documented here. Rolle’s subsequent perjury and defamation while being investigated in his and Aquino’s second felony records destruction was recorded here and here.

The Miami Herald reported on Rolle and Aquino’s first documented records destruction. Rolle and Aquino had gone after good cops; now they are going after me.

Rolle and Aquino refused to allow me to file a complaint against Murguido for his false criminal allegations against me. Aquino claimed Murguido was off duty acting as a private citizen. Therefore they had no control over his actions, part of his explanation can be heard here. Rolle claimed that too much had happened and that he could only deal with things going forward while falsely promising I would suffer no more retaliation, part of which can be heard here.

I had sent Rolle a letter, and Aquino a letter. Aquino subsequently sent an email, copying Rolle shortly after this meeting, claiming Murguido filed a complaint as a citizen, not as a Homestead officer. Rolle and Aquino blocked my complaint forcing the filing of a defamation law suit against Murguido in his individual capacity, NOT as a police officer.

Then Homestead began paying for the attorneys defending Murguido, using the law firm of Weiss, Serota, Helfman… (WSH) on the taxpayers’ dime. WSH is contracted to be Homestead’s city attorney.

WSH attorney Eric Stettin, pictured to the right, claimed in his motion to dismiss that Murguido has absolute immunity against defamation, simply because he is a police officer. However, Murguido wasn’t acting is his official capacity. Stettin’s motion has been shot down twice now by the same honorable judge. I even beat him when it was my first-time pro se in court, to be honest, I was not impressed.

THE FIRST PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST

Homestead’s improper defense of Murguido lead me to file a first records request for the documents relating to the City’s decision to defend Murguido, as well as the related financial records. I knew Rolle had to be involved in the decision.

Homestead deputy clerk Patricia Sullivan responded to my first request five weeks later, which is an unlawful delay by itself (pages 150-152, GSM), but it was not her fault. Homestead creates unlawful automatic delays, by sending my request to WSH. WSH works diligently to find creative new ways to block my request, giving their clients improper legal advice after stalling the request.

WSH Attorney Sam Zeskind, pictured below, provided the flawed reasoning that all requested records were exempt under attorney-client privilege and/or attorney work product.  First, attorney-client privilege (FSS. 90.502)  does NOT apply to Florida’s Public Records Law.

Secondly, for the attorney work product exemption to apply to a record at a minimum, it would have had to have actually been prepared by an attorney, or at an attorney’s express direction. Further, public billing records do NOT fall under this exemption (page 116, GSM).

Zeskind’s improper advice spawns into unethically generated revenue for his firm, where he is getting paid to litigate his own flawed legal advice. Homestead then places the financial burden upon their Citizens. Zeskind and Homestead are literally wasting tens of thousands of tax dollars, only to deny me records which I already have, or ones I do not care about.

Homestead can then seek cover for their nonfeasance of statutory duties, claiming to be acting on the advice of counsel. WSH can then claim they are not government employees and were only giving advice to a client.

However, the actions of WSH attorney Sam Zeskind, pictured below, cloud expose him and his clients to possible civil and/or criminal liabilities.

Homestead and WSH unabashedly continue their deliberate violations of the public records law. I have repeatedly brought this to their attention (see videos here and here as well as immediately below), to no avail.

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Zeskind knowingly or incompetently provided the inapplicable exemptions above for Homestead, as well as the exemptions offered after filing suit. Zeskind ignores the real issues presented while purposefully obfuscating them. Apparently, Zeskind knows this but desires to keep racking up billable hours at taxpayer expense.

 “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

THE SECOND PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST

I filed a second records request with WSH, believing they were also violating the law. WSH as contractors for the city must follow the law too.

Homestead sent me a $347.81 invoice in response to my second records request. A friend on his own refiled the second request receiving an invoice for $18.30!

I paid my friend’s invoice picking up “his records,” effectively circumventing the fraudulent invoice. Yet, City Clerk Elizabeth Sewell (see feature photo) and Attorney Zeskind have since failed to justify this invoice.

Sewell responded to the second requests, placing on the face of both invoices the verbatim text of the first request, not the second request. My second request was basically sub-categories of the first request, and all records provided are responsive to the first request, so it makes sense in a backward way though the response was nine months late!

Zeskind falsely claims all records responsive to my first request are still exempt, and that my second request encompasses a much “broader universe of records,” which is why the additional records were provided in the second request.

However, we received the second request, which contained records that should have been provided in the first request.

This includes the financial records and a damning email which had no attorneys attached to it. Again the city, through Zeskind, identifies no responsive records to the first request, which are not allegedly exempted. Aquino sent the email to human resources. It is not exempt, it was copied to Chief Rolle, and it is definitively part of “all documentation and financial records related to the City’s decision…” It stated:

Officer Murguido was served with a law suit, chief wants to inquire if the City can represent him or assist with this matter. Please advise.

First, they block my complaint because Murguido was acting as a citizen. Then they provide him legal defense, conceal records, and claim he has absolute immunity because he is a cop. Talk about playing both sides of the fence here!

PUBLIC RECORDS LAW SUIT

I filed a records law suit against Homestead for failure to comply with public records law in my first records request. The suit was filed after the first request, but before the second request, and before Zeskind offered “his” second set of exemptions to the first request.

Zeskind filed affirmative defenses to my law suit. My attorney then filed a memorandum in support of the suit. Zeskind responded filing a memorandum in opposition. We had a hearing Homestead lost, and appealed. Zeskind tries to claim the city did not lose, but the side that wins does not generally file an appeal.

Zeskind, in his court “performance” purposefully excluded mention of the direct request for financial records contained in the first request.  Zeskind also claims Aquino’s email was not a responsive document to the first records request. Zeskind also uses the term “reflecting,” when my request said “related to,” claiming he was reading my first request literally (pages 24-25, transcript).

Zeskind provided new exemptions after the law suit was filed when by law only the custodian of records can do such, regardless it was not timely because the suit was already filed (page 20, transcript).

Further, Zeskind failed to identify the potential parties to the suit, as required when claiming the attorney work-product exemption (FSS. 119.071(d)(1 and 2)). He instead claimed I should have known the parties, even though it was a different suit with different defendants. There are other critical flaws in their response as well, not elaborated here.

Homestead’s City Council is fully aware of this, and so is City Manager George Gretsas, since they voted against settling the case.

An update will be written once the appeal closes out, and precedent is established, including the total bill, because you have to follow the money.

THE APPEARANCE OF FRAUDULENT BILLING WHILE SUCKING HARD ON THE TAXPAYER TEAT

Homestead claims in records request that they contract for legal assistance at a flat monthly rate of $14,790/month, which totals $177,480/year. Homestead transferred this contract to WSH at the November 2014 meeting (see page 30). WSH allegedly bills at a flat rate under contract, except for excessive amounts of time where it bills at $125/hr, which requires prior approval of Gretsas.

Homestead documents in their Comprehensive Annual Financial Report an amount of $1,748,985.00 billed for legal fees, in 2016 alone. This is approximately ten times the disclosed value of the contract Homestead provided. What else are they trying to hide?

Zeskind and WSH have clear motives to keep this lucrative contract open with the city at nearly all cost.

The bigger picture problem is WSH acts as the city attorney for many other cities in South Florida too. WSH has contracts with municipalities which following Homestead’s accounting could be valued in the tens of millions of dollars annually!

In how many of these contracts do they also help their government clients break the law? I digress here as the further discussion here goes beyond the scope of this article. However, someone like the Miami Herald – our local newspaper of record – might want to investigate.

Florida law states a municipality can only bill in replying to the records request for charges reflecting a true cost (pages 162-163, GSM). WSH allegedly bills Homestead at a flat rate, as such there can be no direct cost to Homestead. However, Zeskind attempted to bill me at a rate of $204.51/hr, well more than the disclosed contracted rate.

Further, when municipalities can bill for the cost of employee’s time in response to a records request, this is for lowest paid clerical employees only, NOT attorneys.

Zeskind shreds the limits of reasonableness, claiming that one hour is an excessive amount of time. Assuming for the sake of argument that one hour is excessive and that they can lawfully bill for attorney time, Homestead could still only show a maximum direct cost at $125/hr.  Plus where is the prior allowance?

Homestead repeatedly makes unlawful automatic delays sending most if not all my request to their attorneys for review, to begin with. Homestead’s actions lead to abusive and unlawful billing practices, having their attorneys delay production and over-bill for their time, when lower paid employees can and by law must accomplish the task.

Homestead incredulously claims in their invoices to me, that an attorney reviewed all the emails in one hour. Yet, they expect me to believe it took an IT specialist five hours at $45.45/hr to find the related emails. Nothing like inflating the claimed amount of time to run up a bill to unlawfully block the production of records. Further, how do they even lawfully claim $45.45/hr flat rate for IT time? Does this reflect a direct cost or other lawfully allowed charge?

Apparently based on the records provided, Homestead and Zeskind are fraudulently billing me and likely others in multiple ways.

I brought this evidence of fraudulent billing to the City’s and WSH’s attention. Homestead and WSH have for months now, completely ignored the issues raised about this possibly illegal billing practice. I have repeatedly informed them of this in writing, and in person with City Clerk Sewell.

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Sewell later responded in an email that she was “flustered” by my aggressive tone and the fact I was filming (my First Amendment right), i.e. someone finally called her on her out on her misfeasance, while documenting it.

Sewell and city manager George Gretsas are the two biggest problems with compliance with Pubic Records Law within Homestead, aside from WSH attorneys.

Gretsas fleeced Ft. Lauderdale, while city manager, into paying him more than ANY city official in the much larger cities of San Franciso, Chicago, New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas!

Gretsas then improperly secured sweetheart deals for his unqualified cronies. He finally got called out when he asked for a 5% raise on top of a 5% cost of living increase, totaling 10%, for him and his top paid cronies.

Ft. Lauderdale consequently ran Gretsas out of town as their city manager. Gretsas was possibly forced out of his New York position as well; rumor has it….

Gretsas and Sewell had a nearly identical history of records obstruction while employed by the City of Ft. Lauderdale.

Public URLs originally went to this information and other dirt in the past. These URLs now direct your computer to virus laden porno websites. I was able to secure the originals shown above, researching the internet archive. You can copy and paste this link (fortlauderdaleobserver.com/gretsas/index.htm) into the archive, and see for yourself the dirt from the now defunct site.

DO NOT; I repeat DO NOT put this link directly into your web browser.

I hope no city resources were used to bury these once publicly available records.

THIRD PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST

Zeskind lost the case then appealed, wasting more taxpayer dollars, only to later plead with us to settle. After negotiating my attorney’s bottom price, Zeskind tried to get an unlawful disparagement clause stuck into the settlement. Zeskind the supposed “records law expert” didn’t realize this was unlawful under FSS. 69.081(a and b).

Zeskind immediately asked for a time extension after stalling litigation of the case, with a settlement negotiation acted on in less than good faith. The entire email exchange between my attorney and Zeskind is here.

Zeskind’s actions lead me to file a third records request, this time with him personally as a custodian of records. I asked for the total amount he had billed Homestead to date defending the records law suit, and subsequent appeal.

It is exceedingly difficult for one to tell if Zeskind is knowingly and willfully breaking the law, just negligently incompetent in his duties, or both. However, I cannot believe a member of the Florida Bar and a practicing attorney could be so ignorant, of the very laws his livelihood is dependent upon having expert knowledge of.

Zeskind’s actions committed through deliberately skirting the law or gross incompetence, nonetheless, serve to enrich his own pockets. Will Homestead go after Zeskind or WSH for this prima facie legal malpractice?

I gave Zeskind until 4:00 pm, Wednesday, May 17th to reply. Zeskind failed to comply. I, therefore, sent the required eight-day notice via certified over night mail, on May 17th. Homestead responded with the billed hours and cost, the morning of May 19th, the day after receiving notice.

The billing records provided, show that Homestead has spent over $37,000 fighting me on the records law suit and appeal, to date. My attorney’s fees and cost to date are running over $18,000, putting the total burden about to be placed on Homestead tax payers over $55,000. However, by the time this closes out, it will easily be over $70,000, if not $100,000!  All because Homestead wishes to play stupid, and not follow the law.

Their arrogance and willful nonfeasance with the law at this point leads me towards filing more records request law suits for the many other violations they have committed.

Based on the amount billed for attorney hours, if they were charging the $125/hr as claimed, then they must have expended over 260 hours working this case, preposterous! My attorney at $400/hr has half the bill to date. They are either fraudulently billing again, or Homestead has again violated the records law by not providing us with the actual contract between WSH and Homestead, or both.

Additionally, I reached out in good faith in my third records request, offering Zeskind an opportunity to give his side of the story for the record, which I would have published unedited. While Zeskind replied directly to me acknowledging my records request, he cowardly went through my attorney to inform me he would not cooperate for this article.

WSH and Sam Zeskind, with their ethical and moral shortcomings, are the personification of why people hate the legal profession, and why attorneys sadly become the butt of so many jokes.

Stay tuned for updates!

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