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Polk County civil rights activists sue USF over public records

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A Winter Garden civil-rights activist group is suing the University of South Florida over access to public records.

Among the requests made by the Poor and Minority Justice Association Inc. (PMJA) to the USF board of trustees include University President Judy Genshaft‘s travel expenses, police use of derogatory words and others.

According to its website, PMJA, is a nonprofit civil-rights group founded in 2012 to protect minority communities in Polk County from “profiling, harassment and abuse by police” and to “attack inequality and injustice with the use of nonviolent direct action.”

Clayton Allen Cowart, the 45-year-old pastor of Church of God the Bibleway, is PMJA’s founder and president.

PMJA claims to have collaborated with, Joel Chandler, an infamous Lakeland public records advocate who has filed dozens of lawsuits against Florida government agencies for open-records law violations.

The number of ‘nuisance’ lawsuits filed by Chandler (and others) has prompted Florida lawmakers to propose legislation. A bill (SB 80) filed in 2017 by Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, sought to crack down on “serial records abusers” who attempt to lure public officials into public record violations to extort a settlement.

In 2013, the Lakeland Ledger reported on an undercover operation of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office that spied on a 2012 PMJA meeting At the Church of God the Bibleway.

The Ledger wrote that PMJA was started by pastor Clayton Cowart after he pleaded to a misdemeanor stalking charge May 31, 2012, in what was then described as an “affair with a parishioner gone wrong … He is still fighting to overturn his conviction. The group, about 90 percent black, meets weekly.”

On Feb. 10, PMJA emailed eight separate public-records requests to the University of South Florida, seeking records on:

– Judy Genshaft’s travel expenses.

– Procurement of graduation gowns.

– Contracts with food service giant Aramark or subsidiaries.

– Information collected regarding the infamous Dozier School for Boys.

– Use by USF Police Department employees of any of more than 200 pejorative terms, including:  “butt pirate … jungle bunny … Hebrew … sand nigger … slut … wetback … tranny … wheelchair jockey … terrorist.”

– Payment of membership contributions, dues and cellular phone service.

– Procurement of products or services offered by Safe Restraints Inc.

Since the requests, PMJA had received no more than an acknowledgment of the records request.

In a complaint filed March 26 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, PMJA is suing for unconstitutionally withholding public records. It seeks a court order requiring USF to make the requested records available.

However, five days after filing this lawsuit, PMJA abruptly dismissed the case with prejudice, and now cannot file another suit based on the same claims.

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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