Pension Fund Legal Fees Pile Up in Lawsuit; as Attorney Costs Reach $160,000, Trustees Consider Reducing Benefits

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Byline: Steve Patterson

Jacksonville's Police and Fire Pension Fund has apparently spent about $160,000 defending itself from a public records lawsuit that started over a bill for $326.

The man who sued the fund, Curtis Lee, says he has spent about another $30,000 on an attorney after first representing himself for several months.

Both sides are hoping Circuit Judge James H. Daniel will tell the other to pay the bill when he rules on the case, for which closing arguments were offered in April.

And both blame each other for the high cost of going to court.

"It's like killing a fly with a sledgehammer," said Lee, a retired New York lawyer who is a director in the nonprofit Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County.

"It's ridiculous," Lee said. "It's absurd."

The fight is unfolding while pension trustees are discussing reducing benefits for new members, because the fund won't have enough money to keep paying at today's rates.

The pension fund never planned to run up legal costs this high but had to defend itself when Lee went to court, said John Keane, the fund's administrator.

"We have a lawyer because he sued us. That's about all I can tell you," Keane said, calling the costs "incomprehensible."

A public records lawyer wondered why the case had become so expensive.

"It seems like an awful lot of money to spend when mediation is available," said James Parker Rhea, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a group that lobbies for open government.

Both sides said the other refused mediation, which is offered through the Florida Attorney General's Office.

Florida law makes most government agencies' information available for public review but says agencies should charge the amount they really spend compiling and copying records once they're requested.

Lee, who has criticized the pension fund's management, asked to see a number of financial records in late 2009.

He was told when he arrived at the fund office that he would have to pay $326 - and left without looking at the records or paying anything.

He sued, saying the pension fund hadn't followed state law, and later added a second complaint when he was told to pay a $2,352 deposit to cover costs for a separate request.

The pension fund turned to the law firm that handles its other business, a South Florida firm that bills at $285 per hour.

The fund's lawyers logged hundreds of hours - equivalent to about 14 weeks of full-time work - researching everything from state opinions on public records issues to Lee's disciplinary history with the New York Bar. …