LEE COUNTY – The Lee County Sheriff's Office charging Fox-4 nearly $200,000 for public records and they claim it'll take them more than three years to produce the records. Those records detail how effectively the sheriff’s Sexual Predator Unit has been tracking sex offenders.
This is all part of a Four in your Corner investigation. Investigator Mike Mason has been following this story and explains how public records are used to provide Fox-4 and other media sources with useful information. That information can then be shared with the public and used as a resource to better inform and protect families throughout Southwest Florida.
Some are now questioning whether the sheriff's office is misusing its power to keep those records private. Registered sex offender, Robert Taylor, admits to molesting his three young daughters several years ago but he swears he'd never do it again.
However, he feels some sex offenders can never be trusted saying, ”There are some that they just keep repeating and repeating." Lee County deputies are responsible for verifying the addresses of around 600 sex offenders each month.
A Four in your Corner investigation recently found some were not living where they're supposed to be. That’s why we requested documents to indicate each time the Lee County Sheriff's Office visited these sex offenders.
We requested the past four years worth of information. Instead, the Sheriff's Office sent us a big bill with a detailed explanation of each expense.
This is how it’s broken down:
The Lee County Sheriff's Office would have to compile info on 600 sex offenders and review the Calls for Service (CFS) numbers associated with those cases. Since deputies check on them each month that's 7,200 visits per year, or 29,000 visits over a 4 year period. Since we requested any officer notes that were written regarding those visits, the sheriff's office estimates it'll take about 15 minutes to review each case and that translates into 7,200 hours of work, or 180 weeks. They are also charging us $25 an hour in order to gather that information.
The total is $180,000 and it will take three and a half years to complete our request.
For the past 15 years, Stephanie Eller has worked for the Lee County Sheriff's Office. She's now running for sheriff against incumbent, Mike Scott. Eller reacted to the bill Fox-4 received saying, "That's reprehensible for them to do something like that." Eller also worked as a public information officer (PIO).
She claims the sheriff's office has been known to stonewall the media, "When there was an unfavorable story there were times where the records were not given to the media. Basically, we were just told a document by that name does not exist.” Eller tells us in some cases she knew the information did exist.
We also interviewed two media experts. Mark Caramanica is an attorney specializing in media law and professor Scott Libin chairs the ethics committee for RTDNA, one of the most well respected media organizations in the country. Both men question why the sheriff can't promptly produce these public records.
Caramanica asks, "What is going on here? Why are your records kept in such a fashion that it's going to take so long and shouldn't this be in a central database or a report for each visit that you can retrieve quickly?"
Libin had similar questions saying, "I had always assumed that data processing had made a little more progress than that in contemporary law enforcement. It's a little frightening for me to think that it's that sluggish and primitive that it would literally take three and a half years to do this."
If it really does take the Lee County Sheriff's Office three and a half years to compile this information about sex offenders we wondered how they have been able to keep track of them since they apparently have no centralized database.
We requested interviews and a comment from the sheriff’s office about this situation but haven't heard back.