Court orders city to pay PETA's legal fees for hiding/destroying public documents

Like an outclassed boxer too punch drunk to know when to quit, Virginia Beach staggered out of Circuit Court Tuesday dazed, beaten, confused, but vowing to continue to use taxpayer funds to fight increasingly negative legal odds in its blunder to keep public information secret.

Circuit Court Judge Frederick B. Lowe ordered the city to pay $12,500 in attorney fees to Kevin Martingayle for successfully representing the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a suit to obtain public records about city plans to build a captive dolphin tank at the Virginia Marine Science Museum.  In the aftermath of the legal battle, controversy, and public ridicule, the city abandoned the project.

During months of squabbling over hidden/destroyed documents (see: Suit), Lowe ordered the city to release all records pertaining to the project to PETA.  The city resisted every move to force it to tell the truth and produce documents, even under court order.

The legal hassle has been ongoing since early spring with the city losing every single legal battle.  City Attorney Les L. Lilley said the city had paid more than $30,000 for 60 working days (up to June 11) for outside legal help.  Outside legal expenses from June 11 to present is not available.

Martingayle said, "Now they are talking about appealing a $12,500 attorney fee order.  What do you think they spend appealing it?  In round one, with no hearings, no depositions, no discovery and they spent over $30,000 on outside legal counsel fees.

"They'll spend twice as much than what the judge ordered them to pay.  The last thing we want is more depositions, court hearings and chasing them around. We simply want them to comply with the spirit of the law and orders of the court"  

Some have estimated that the city will spend almost $100,000 in outside legal fees in its losing effort to keep public documents from being made available to the public. "An that doesn't include all the city's staff time and in-house lawyers," one said, adding, "I bet it will be closer to $150,000 with everything added in, not including the court's costs and wasting the time of the judiciary."

The case originated after the city 'rigged' plans to build a $55M fish tank for a captive dolphin display at the VMSM without free, knowledgeable public input.  PETA, one of several groups representing opponents to the project both on animal rights and economic grounds, requested to see the plans and documents.

When the city dragged its feet, even dodged requests under the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), PETA filed suit.  One museum official, during discovery, said his superiors destroyed documents it didn't want to make public under the court order and also rigged public hearings so speakers in opposition would be at a disadvantage.

In addition, Museum director Mac Rawls and City Manager James K. Spore had police send an undercover agent into opponents meetings to give leaders 'political reports' on what the groups were planning.  Neither Spore nor Rawls denied spying on law abiding citizens for political purposes.

The court has ruled against the city in every action, but it continues to slug it out at taxpayers' expense.

Still remaining to be settled is a ruling on whether the Virginia Marine Science Museum Foundation's must be produced under the FOIA.  The private foundation is a fund-raising arm for the VMSM and is claiming its records are therefore not subject to the public information act.  Martingayle and PETA, however, said the foundations records were generated, maintained, filed, and stored by public employees, in facilities and therefore are subject to scrutiny and the court's orders.

A date for a hearing on that issue has not been set.