A curious champion for Senate President Don Gaetz’s public records bill

Senate President Don Gaetz made a public records bill one of his top priorities this session, only to see it stall in the Florida House.

SB 1648, which passed the Senate last month, would make a number of technical fixes to current law to generally improve the public’s access to records. But among the bill’s chief beneficiaries are attorneys who specialize in public records lawsuits, a select group that includes the Senate president’s son — Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

The bill allows lawyers to be paid for time spent negotiating for the legal fees they win. Currently, they are paid only for time spent on the case.

Sen. Gaetz said he didn’t talk to his son about the bill. Instead, he says, the inspiration is a 50-year-old Lakeland man named Joel Chandler.

During a Wednesday news conference, Chandler stood alongside representatives from a wide spectrum of groups — the First Amendment Foundation, Integrity Florida, Common Cause and the Tea Party Network — urging the Florida House to pass the bill.

“Open government matters because open government breeds good governance,” Chandler said. “It’s instructive to note that Don Gaetz, who is arguably one of the more conservative members of the Florida Legislature, has been the chief architect of (the bill) for open government.”

Yet Chandler is a curious champion for a bill that promotes open records. Since 2008, he has filed about 200 lawsuits over public records, a frequency that has caused some to question his motives.

“It was always a little baffling to me as to where he was coming from,” said former Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

Before 2007, Chandler says he was a salesman of copy machines. He gained widespread attention in 2008 when he requested health insurance information for all Polk County schools employees, and their spouses and children. He expanded it to include Florida’s 66 other districts.

The request was so onerous and intrusive that it sparked a law in 2009 that exempted such personal information.

“It was a big nightmare,” said Jeff Bergosh, who sits on the Escambia County school board. “It required a lot of data, including the addresses for children. It creeped a lot of people out.”

Chandler said he wanted to test which districts complied. He ended up suing 11 districts for the information, which, once he got, he ditched.

“I was accused of selling it,” Chandler said in an interview. “I didn’t give it to anybody or sell it. Literally, it ended up in a box at the bottom of a closet.”

His request came after his brother, David, lost his teacher’s certificate. A Dec. 4, 2007, order by the state’s Education Practices Commission confirmed findings that David Chandler, while working as a biology teacher at Hillsborough’s Leto High School in 2004-05, engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old female student.

Chandler said the request was not a vendetta for his brother’s loss of certification.

“I understand how someone would come to that conclusion,” Chandler said. “But I don’t believe I knew at the time. My contact with David has been very intermittent.”

Instead, he says, his crusade started on a whim.

“I know this sounds silly, but I was reading newspapers, where they were sending reporters out to make these requests,” Chandler said. “I thought that sounded cool, I’ll try that. I knew nothing about my brother.”

He said he’s gone broke dedicating his life to public records requests. In early April, he and his wife filed for bankruptcy protection.

Chandler now serves as executive director for the Citizens Awareness Foundation, which promotes open records.

He won’t reveal his salary or who funds the nonprofit.

“I’m not going to disclose that now,” he said. “We’re in the process of filing with the IRS. When I’m legally obliged to provide it, I will.”

He’s flattered by all the attention he’s received from SB 1648, which Sen. Gaetz has made a top priority. But he said he didn’t add anything to it, including the language on legal fees.

“It was more, 'Here are the proposals we are considering,’ ” Chandler said. “I don’t recall ever making any concrete proposals that weren’t already there. I’m surprised anyone cares what I think.”

Tampa Bay Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story.