Perhaps in an attempt to find the truth behind what President Trump has decried as “fake news,” requests for government documents under the Freedom of Information Act have soared since he took office, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Syracuse University.
The 63 public record lawsuits filed in April represented a 25-year high, said officials at The FOIA Project at the Newhouse School at the New York university said. Further, with 60 lawsuits filed already in May, it, too, is likely to be another record-setting month, they said.
Information sought includes records on Trump’s executive orders and last month’s missile attack on Syria. Lawsuits have also been filed to get warrant applications for surveillance activities and internal agency communications about China. People and organizations are also seeking paperwork about actions taken by the new director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and border searches by the Department of Homeland Security.
If the pace continues, university officials said they expect more than 579 public records lawsuits will be filed before the fiscal year ends in Sept. 30. By comparison, 512 Freedom of Information Act lawsuits were filed during the last fiscal year of the Obama Administration.
Wifredo A. Ferrer, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, has accepted a position as head of the Global Compliance and Investigations team at the international law firm Holland & Knight.
The move, announced in a press release Wednesday, will put Ferrer in charge of corporate compliance and government investigations for the firm’s white-collar defense division.
Company officials said Ferrer, who with seven years as U.S. Attorney was the South Florida office’s longest-serving top prosecutor since the 1970s, will focus on both domestic and international clients.
“Over my many years in the South Florida community, I’ve been very impressed by the caliber and professionalism of Holland & Knight attorneys, many of whom I count as friends,” Ferrer aid in the news release. “The firm has an outstanding reputation in the profession and also embodies a culture that is deeply committed to giving back to the community. I look forward to contributing to its continued success.”
Ferrer will work at the firm’s Miami office, one of its 27 branches worldwide.
Former Statewide Prosecutor William Shepherd, who heads Holland & Knight’s West Palm Beach office, attributed Ferrer’s move in part to an opportunity to reunite with the head of the firm’s litigation section, John Hogan.
Ferrer previously worked with Hogan at the Department of Justice while Mr. Hogan was chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
“I think it’s great to have Willy as part of the the team,” Shepherd said, later adding: “He’s a real trial attorney, both from the county attorney’s office in Miami-Dade and as Assistant U.S. Attorney, so he brings new depth to an already strong national team.”
A devout Roman Catholic, he has eight adult children.
He will preside in the upcoming health-care fraud trial of Palm Beach County ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. Separately, Melgen faces corruption charges in New Jersey with his longtime pal U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.
Some of Marra’s other notable cases include: Joseph Zada, who was convicted of mail fraud for stealing at least $37 million from an estimated 45 victims, including former NHL hockey star Sergei Fedorov. He is also handling a case in which victims of sexual abuse by Palm Beach resident Jeffrey Epstein are accusing federal prosecutors of violating the Victims’ Rights Act by not telling them about the non-prosecution agreement they signed.
In ruling against Trump on Wednesday, in a decision involving Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra made it clear he meant the new president no disrespect when he referred to him simply as Donald Trump or D. Trump throughout the 22-page order.
“At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Donald J. Trump was a private citizen. As a result, the Court will refer to him as such in this decision. In doing so, the Court means no disrespect to him or to the esteemed position he now holds.”
In a one-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled in favor of members who filed suit against Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on Donald Ross Road. He awarded them $4.8 million plus $925,000 in interest.
In a statement, the Trump Organization vowed to appeal.
At a trial in August, members argued that under Trump’s ownership they had been soaked for millions. Trump purchased the ailing club from The Ritz Carlton for $5 million in 2012. The bargain price came with the understanding that he was responsible for the $41 million that Ritz-Carlton GolfClub & Spa owed members in refundable deposits.
Contrary to Ritz-Carlton’s policies, Trump ownership rules bar members from the club once they announce their intentions to resign. Even though they can’t use the club, they are still billed $8,000 to $20,000 a year for dues and must pay an $1,800 annual fee for food and beverages. Because most have to wait until five new members join before their deposit will be refunded, those bills will continue to mount for years.
Trump, then hot on the campaign trail, testified by videotape. His son, Eric, who oversees the club along with 17 others owned by The Trump Organization, claimed the members were just disgruntled and eventually would get their money back when new members joined.
In the statement, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization wrote: “We respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision. The plaintiffs were all members under Ritz Carlton who resigned before Trump purchased the Club. At the time Trump purchased the Club, it was suffering financially, making it unlikely that these members would ever get back their deposits. At trial, we presented overwhelming evidence that the plaintiffs’ memberships were never recalled and that the plaintiffs had waived this argument during the course of the litigation.”
Treatment center operator Kenneth “Kenny” Chatman on Thursday pleaded not guilty to a sweeping 17-count indictment that accuses him of money laundering, health-care fraud and sex trafficking, a charge that could send him to prison to life.
The indictment, handed up Tuesday, showcases federal prosecutors plan to shut down what they called the 46-year-old suburban Boynton Beach man’s illicit drug treatment empire that stretched from Mangonia Park in Palm Beach County to Plantation in Broward County and brought in an estimated $5.4 million.
The five others, who were released on bond after being charged in a criminal complaint last month, also pleaded not guilty to the new charges this week. A sixth, who was not originally charged, is to appear in court Monday.
“It’s the beginning of a long journey,” Chatman’s attorney Saam Zangeneh said after the brief hearing before U.S. Magistrate William Matthewman. He pledged to vigorously defend Chatman, who remains jailed as a flight risk and a danger to the community.
At a previous hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Villafana suggested she would also ask a grand jury to indict Chatman in connection with overdose deaths that she said occurred at the sober homes he operated. But, she said, those charges would take more time to prepare. Chatman was not charged in connection with any deaths.
Still the charges he faces in connection with his involvement with Journey to Recovery in suburban Lake Worth and Reflections Treatment Center in Margate along with dozens of sober homes are serious. Journey to Recovery and Reflections were both licensed drug treatment centers. As a convicted felon, Chatman was barred from holding the licenses so he and his wife illegally told authorities she was operating them, according to the indictment.
Rather than treating patients, the indictment claims Chatman made a fortune by taking advantage of them along with insurance companies. He turned female patients into prostitutes. He paid kickbacks to five laboratories – in South and Central Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania – to get them to test bogus urine samples, according to the indictment.
In addition to Chatman and his wife, also indicted were: Joaquin Mendez and Donald Willems, both doctors; Fransesia Davis, who worked at the two treatment centers; Michael Bonds, a sober home operator; and Stefan Gatt, who worked at a lab in Central Florida.
The saga of efforts to seize a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy’s belongings to pay the expenses of a West Palm Beach man he shot and paralyzed took another turn on Tuesday when attorneys challenged the value he claimed his possessions are worth.
In court papers, attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Dontrell Stephens, accused Sgt. Adams Lin of understating the value of his car, his television and a Play Station. They are the only belongings Lin said he owns that are worth more than $25. In total, he said, his possessions, excluding his car, are worth less than $4,000.
Also, while Lin in court papers set the value of his two dogs and a cat at $100, a spokesman for Scarola said neither those pets nor an aquarium with fish were seized. By law, Lin was required to list the value of all of his possessions worth more than $25, the spokesman said.
A hearing will be held before U.S. Magistrate Barry Seltzer on Wednesday to determine if Lin will get his belongings back. He is allowed to retain $4,000 worth of his possessions, according to the state law. He claims he owes more on his 2014 Dodge Challenger than the $22,000 claims it is worth. Scarola claims it has been modified at a cost of $13,000, making it far more valuable.
Lin’s belongings were seized by court order on Jan. 7 from Lin’s home to defray a $22.4 million judgment Scarola won for Stephens last year. Stephens, 23, who was paralyzed after he was shot by Lin in 2013, is destitute, Scarola said.
The judgment is also against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Scarola said he wants Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to pay Stephens the $200,000 he agency will be legally required to pay if the verdict is upheld on appeal. Bradshaw, he said, has refused.
Under Florida law, $200,000 is the most government agencies can be required to pay for wrongdoing. To get more, the Florida Legislature must pay a claims bill, lifting the cap.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeal has denied a request to throw out a multi-million lawsuit filed by the parents of Seth Adams against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s sergeant who shot and killed him more than four years ago.
Attorneys for Sgt. Michael Custer filed a motion to throw out the case with the high court earlier this year. The court’s denial means the case could be headed to trail sometime next year.
“We are pleased that the Appellate Court agreed that there is no physical evidence to support Sergeant Custer’s version of events,” said Wallace McCall of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the firm representing the Adams family. “We look forward to trial so that the public will be able to understand what really happened that night.”
Custer fatally shot Adams, a 24-year-old Loxahatchee Groves resident, as he was returning to his family’s garden shop on A Road off Okeechobee Boulevard, where he also lived.
Afterwards, Custer claimed he shot Adams, fearing he was reaching into his pickup truck for a gun. Instead, the unarmed Adams was grabbing his cell phone.
In March, a judge mostly cleared PBSO of wrongdoing amid allegations that it intentional destroyed or hid evidence to thwart the lawsuit – including the laptop and cell phone Custer used that night.
While attributing most of the agency’s lapses to negligence or technological glitches, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley said he was still “deeply concerned” that it allowed Custer’s cellphone to disappear.
Attorney Summer Barranco, who represents the sheriff’s office and Custer, attributed the failures to a simple mistake.
UPDATE: Federal prosecutors on Tuesday asked that the U.S. magistrate’s decision to allow Melgen to return home be put on hold until the matter is reviewed by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra. Magistrate James Hopkins granted the request which means Melgen will have to call off the moving vans.
After spending more than a year living in his daughter’s Palm Beach Gardens condo, Dr. Salomon Melgen is headed back to his sprawling house on the Intracoastal Waterway to await trial on charges that he defrauded Medicare out of as much as $105 million.
In an order signed this week, U.S. Magistrate James Hopkins said he is no longer concerned that living along the waterway increases the chances the ophthalmologist will flee to his native Dominican Republic. Further, Hopkins ruled that Melgen, who also faces corruption charges in New Jersey with his longtime friend U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, can leave his house near Juno Beach from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. without an escort. But, he said, he must continue to wear an ankle monitor.
In his order, Hopkins noted that Melgen would have gone to trial last month had federal prosecutors shared their witness list with the Melgen’s attorneys as they were required to do under court rules. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra in August reluctantly delayed the trial until next year saying the failure to share the information could have denied Melgen a fair trial.
Melgen and Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, were indicted in April 2015 on corruption charges. Prosecutors claim Melgen showered Menendez with campaign contributions, hotel stays, free trips and other gifts. In exchange, they claim, Menendez lobbied federal agencies to help Melgen in an ongoing dispute over his Medicare billing and other matters, including bringing girlfriends into the country.
Weeks after he was charged in New Jersey, Melgen was charged here with more than 70 health-care related fraud charges in connection with clinics he operated in West Palm Beach, Wellington, Delray Beach and Port St. Lucie. Prosecutors claim he falsely diagnosed and treated scores of elderly patients for macular degeneration. They claim he double-billed Medicare by using one vial of Lucentis, a drug used to treat the malady that causes blindness, to treat multiple patients.
Melgen denies the charges. Before his release from the Palm Beach County jail in July 2015, he was forced to pledge all of his family’s assets – then estimated at $18 million – to secure his release. Since he was ordered to leave his home as part of the original bond deal, Melgen has sold his boat and jet, his attorneys said.
A federal judge has agreed to postpone a wrongful death suit against Nouman Raja while the former Palm Beach Garden police officer faces criminal charges in the October shooting death of stranded motorist Corey Jones.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Patrick M. Hunt signed an order Monday granting attorney Oscar Marrero’s request to stay a lawsuit filed by Jones’ father, Clinton Jones, Sr., against Raja, who faces manslaughter by culpable negligence and attempted murder charges for shooting the 31-year-old during a roadside confrontation captured on a roadside assistance recorded line.
Prosecutors this summer charged Raja at the end f a months-long investigation and a grand jury session surrounding the deadly encounter that began when Raja drove up the off-ramp of Interstate 95 on PGA Boulevard in an unmarked van and approached Jones in plainclothes.
Raja later told investigators that he shot Jones because the professional drummer, who by day was a housing manager for the Delray Beach Housing Authority, came at him with a gun.
But prosecutors say they caught several inconsistencies in his statement, including the fact that Raja was overheard on a 911 call yelling at Jones to drop a gun when evidence in the case showed he had already fired the shot that killed Jones more than 30 seconds before he made the call.