TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of Florida's housing crisis, some state lawmakers want to move legal notices of foreclosures from newspapers to the Internet, sparking a debate over access to information and charges of favoritism.
Newspapers publish hundreds of thousands of small-type legal notices a year, which are required before a lender can foreclose on a home. The revenue is lucrative for business publications that depend heavily on legal ads.
Supporters say the change is long overdue, as newspaper readership declines and more and more commerce is transacted electronically.
Critics, largely newspapers, say Web-only notices would hurt the poor and elderly, who aren't computer-savvy.
They also claim the legislation is tailored to enrich a single entity, Albertelli Law in Tampa, which is lobbying for the bill and operates PREO.com, a foreclosure website that calls itself "the complete default marketplace."
The same firm is under investigation by Attorney General Pam Bondi's office following 16 consumer complaints alleging shoddy legal practices such as the use of fraudulent signatures, a practice known as "robo-signing."
PREO's Tallahassee lobbyist, Sandra Mortham, calls it "absolutely fallacious" that the bill favors her client. She said that while the idea was inspired by the client, attorney and PREO founder James Albertelli, "this is not about him doing it exclusively."
"Newspapers have had a monopoly on this for 60 years. I understand why they would want to keep it," says Mortham, a former Pinellas lawmaker and secretary of state. "People might as well get used to this. It's going to come."
Albertelli says PREO once got several hundred thousand "hits" or views each month, but that has declined to about 100,000 a month. As for the investigation, he said: "None of the complaints are meritorious."
Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, are sponsoring the bills, which specify that to qualify, a publicly accessible website must attract at least 100,000 hits a month from unique visitors.
Opponents say PREO.com is the only site in Florida that meets the standard. They are distributing fliers to lawmakers noting that Albertelli's firm is under investigation.
"Public notice — particularly notice of proceedings of legal actions that could take someone's home — is critical to preserving private property rights, as well as the right of due process," the fliers state.
Baxley, who acknowledges discussing his bill with lobbyist Mortham, says his goal is to encourage clerks of court to modernize the marketing of foreclosure information. He says his goal is to make online notices "an option," not mandatory, and that it's not to be vendor-specific.
The state association of court clerks is neutral on the issue. Its legislative chairman, Sarasota County Clerk Karen Rushing, says most clerks are eager to embrace new technology.
Leading the opposition to the bill is Jack Cory, who lobbies for the Daily Business Review publications in South Florida, and former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who represents Keep the Public Noticed Coalition and is a Tallahassee lawyer.
Also lobbying against the legislation is the Florida Press Association, a trade group whose members include the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald.
FPA President Dean Ridings says newspaper legal notices are seen by people who may not be specifically looking for them.
"Whether it's a neighbor, a lienholder or even a family member, this corrective push is provided by newspapers," says Ridings. "If you place these notices only on a website, you would only see them if you were looking at that website."
Albertelli says legal notices are required to be published once a week for two consecutive weeks, and reach a narrow audience. He envisions using technology to text message notices to customer cell phones.
"It's more inclusive than you think," he says.
The bills (SB 230 and HB 149) are yet to be heard by legislative committees. The House bill is assigned to the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, is skeptical of using the Internet as a main source of foreclosure notices.
"I'm going to closely evaluate that bill," Snyder said. "In the past, I have not supported initiatives that make it difficult for a segment of our society to get the information they need, and that they currently use newspapers for."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.