Gannon’s withholding of travel firms’ back-taxes deal raises open records questions

Gannon’s withholding of travel firms’ back-taxes deal raises open records questions

Two weeks after Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon announced she had reached $1.9 million settlement with more than a dozen online travel companies, her office still has not released a copy of the agreement to either The Palm Beach Post or Palm Beach County officials.

Although legal settlements are typically considered public records under state law, Gannon’s office has repeatedly said it cannot release the settlement agreement until it notifies the companies’ attorneys.

The delay has raised questions among public records watchdogs, who have differing views on whether Gannon can legally withhold the information.

In an e-mail to The Post Monday, Gannon said she was not “stonewalling” anyone, adding that she has “every intention of releasing the settlement.”

The Post first requested a copy of the agreement on Jan. 30 — the same day Gannon sent out a press release announcing that a settlement had been reached ending the 2½ -year legal battle.

Despite requests from The Post, Gannon has not cited a specific exemption in state law that allows her to withhold the information.

Pat Gleason, open-government chief for Attorney General Pam Bondi, said that the state’s “taxpayer-confidentiality” laws could block the release of certain information in the settlement.

“The sole question is whether or not a portion of that settlement is or is not confidential,” she said.

But Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, disagreed, saying that there was no reason for Gannon to delay the release. “We have a statutorily and constitutional right of access to public records,” Peterson said. “She can’t contract away that right.”

The foundation is a non–profit advocate for open records.

Gannon has said that the terms of the settlement required her to notify the travel companies’ attorneys before releasing the agreement.

Deputy County Administrator Verdenia Baker said Monday that the county has also submitted a formal public records request for the document, but so far has not received a copy.

“We still haven’t seen it,” Baker said.

The settlement ended a lawsuit Gannon filed in 2009 that alleged that travel companies, including Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, were not giving the county all of the tourism taxes that they collect for hotel rooms they book here.

The “bed tax” of 5 cents per dollar is levied on hotel stays of less than six months. The money is used to help market the county as a tourism destination and pay for cultural programs and beach restoration.

Roughly $1.3 million of the companies’ $1.9 million payment will be used for tourism-related expenses, county officials said. The rest will pay for Gannon’s legal expenses and court costs.

Baker said the county received the $1.3 million check two weeks ago, and has sent it to the clerk’s office to be deposited in the county’s bank account.

Orange County settled a similar suit with Expedia last year for an undisclosed amount. The agreement was not released and county commissioners were required to sign confidentiality documents before they were told details about the settlement.

In Palm Beach County, Gannon issued a two-page press release which included few details about the agreement.

Gannon said the settlement payment represents money owed to county over the past 12 years and dates back to when many of the travel companies began booking hotel stays here.

Gannon’s suit, filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, alleged that the companies were turning over taxes based only on the wholesale rates. Gannon’s office stressed that the settlement is “not an admission of liability” by the companies.

Staff writer Emily Roach and staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.