Tarpon Springs is withholding records, former city attorney says in lawsuit

Tom Trask’s law firm is suing to get documents related to what city commissioners said about his performance last year.
Tarpon Springs City Hall, where officials have been accused of withholding public records by the former city attorney.
Tarpon Springs City Hall, where officials have been accused of withholding public records by the former city attorney. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 1|Updated May 1

Shortly after Tom Trask resigned as Tarpon Springs’ city attorney last year, citing “baseless public attacks,” he hired a lawyer to request city commissioners’ emails, text messages and other public records that discussed his tenure.

On Friday, about six months after submitting the first request, his law firm sued Tarpon Springs, alleging city officials violated Florida’s public records law by causing unreasonable delays and manufacturing confusion as an excuse for their failure to turn over all records.

According to Trask’s partner, attorney Jay Daigneault, the firm sought records to piece together circumstances around “utterly false allegations” related to Trask’s handling of a controversial apartment complex proposal near the Anclote River, which former city commissioners approved in late 2021.

By withholding the records, Daigneault said his presumption is “there are records in that production that they would prefer we do not see.”

“Filing the lawsuit against the city of Tarpon Springs is about the last thing in the world we wanted to do,” Daigneault said. “They have obligations under the public records law they are not meeting and it appears they wish to avoid us. Common sense says there’s probably a reason for that.”

On Monday, Mayor Costa Vatikiotis said that the city is not delaying and that it has taken time to review tens of thousands of records before releasing those that are relevant. To help with the voluminous task, Vatikiotis said the city hired a Florida Department of Law Enforcement specialized clerk to assist city staff in gathering documents.

“When you ask for Encyclopedia Britannica, that’s not going to happen overnight,” Vatikiotis said.

Tampa-based attorney Ethan Loeb, who is representing the Trask Daigneault firm, is requesting a Pinellas County Circuit Court judge to hold an accelerated hearing on the matter, and to compel the city to produce all documents and pay attorneys fees.

In March 2022, a city election brought a majority of commissioners into office who opposed their predecessors’ approval of the Morgan Group’s proposed development on the Anclote River.

In a memo a few months later, Vatikiotis described emails he discovered that showed representatives for Morgan Group were coordinating with city staff on changes to the code years before submitting an application for the project.

During a meeting on Oct. 11, a month after Trask submitted his resignation, the commission agreed to hire a special counsel to investigate the matter. Commissioner Mike Eisner spent an hour reading a portion of the 700 emails into the record and questioning the ethical and legal conduct of Trask.

“That the incoming board didn’t like the project and strongly opposed it, that’s their decision,” Daigneault said Monday. “But you don’t get to destroy people along the way.”

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The records request that Loeb submitted on Oct. 21 asked for a series of texts, emails and other records between city officials and 17 private citizens related to Trask, including any allegations they made of illegal acts, ethical violations, self-dealing, breach of duty and conspiracy.

Loeb’s second request a week later asked for all correspondence of elected officials and city staff with two Tarpon Springs residents suspected of being behind Alex Androu, an anonymous Facebook page “responsible for spreading lies about Mr. Trask and the Trask Firm’s tenure as City Attorney,” according to the complaint.

The city’s initial response stated there were potentially 52,692 records that could be responsive from commissioners and staff, including 1,228 from Vatikiotis and 42 from Eisner. The invoice cited a $12,466 estimate requiring a 25% deposit to proceed in full or in part.

Loeb requested the 1,270 records from Vatikiotis and Eisner and submitted search terms to narrow down the other nearly 53,000 records.

On Dec. 16, the Trask firm issued a $436 check for the Vatikiotis and Eisner records, according to the complaint. City Attorney Regina Kardash responded a month later that documents still needed to be reviewed and redacted by a public records specialist and the firm had to pay actual costs before records could be turned over.

“The City is actually going above and beyond to ensure that your request is appropriately answered; however, you are bordering on harassment with your constantly changing search terms, and attempting to manipulate your responses to bolster false and malicious potential litigation claims,” Kardash stated in a Jan. 26 letter.

To date, according to the complaint, the city has produced 1,300 documents from the individual commissioners and none from the larger database.