LEE COUNTY — The Lee County School District is going to have to pay out thousands of dollars in legal fees.
It lost a lawsuit this week, after a judge found the District was illegally withholding public records.
Attorney Steven Bracci represents Oakes Farms. The company had a contract with the District, but it was abruptly canceled over the summer. So Bracci is fighting the District in court, and when he tried to get some public records to bolster his case, it sparked a whole other legal fight.
Bracci said he filed his public records request shortly after the Oakes Farms contract was canceled over the summer.
“Essentially we were looking for the decision-making and fact-finding process for why the oakes farms contract was canceled, because they were very cryptic about it," said Bracci.
Bracci thinks the District illegally canceled that contract after Alfie Oakes, the owner of Oakes Farms, made some inflammatory statements on social media.
But when Bracci requested the documents he thought would prove that, his emails to the District disappeared.
“They said that they were purged because of key words that were contained in the body of my email, but they won’t tell us what the key words are because they’ve actually destroyed their change log, which shows what key words they might have entered that would have caused my records request to be destroyed," said Bracci.
The judge agreed with Bracci, stating in his opinion “The ineptitude of District staff in allowing the record request to become inadvertently quarantined by an automated process, and then purged and deleted a week later, does not excuse the district’s statutory."
The District responded, simply saying "The District does not believe the factual findings are accurate.”
But Bracci does, and he thinks this is a win, and not just for himself.
"When they withhold records, they’re withholding, that’s a harm, not just to the person requesting it, but really to the public at large," said Bracci.
The District said it is considering adding more staff to its public records department moving forward. The School Board also approved a new records management system last year that is supposed to be in place soon.