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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Florida Papers Get Attorneys' Fees in FEMA FOIA Flap

The federal government has agreed to pay $105,000 in attorney fees for The News-Press after the newspaper successfully sued the Department of Homeland Security for the release of public records.

The News-Press and its sister Gannett Co. Inc. newspapers, The Pensacola News Journal and Florida Today, sued the agency when it refused to release details on the 1.1 million recipients of $1.2 billion in disaster aid after four hurricanes ripped through Florida in 2004.

The money was distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a branch of Homeland Security. FEMA refused to detail who received the aid after the newspapers requested that data under the Freedom of Information Act.

The newspapers initially failed in the attempt to get the information from the government, but they prevailed in The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The government was ordered to turn over the addresses of recipients of disaster aid.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, winning a release of the records allowed the plaintiffs to return to court to request attorneys' fees from the government agency.

"It is gratifying that the government finally recognizes some degree of culpability in this case," said The News-Press Executive Editor Kate Marymont. "We view this as further evidence that we did the correct thing — fight for the public's right to know."

The law firm representing the papers, Holland & Knight, had requested $165,000 in attorney fees but the motions were pending while they tried to work out a deal with the government.

"This is an outstanding result for the newspaper," said lead attorney Charles Tobin. "After years of withholding records, the government has agreed to pay six figures. The amount speaks for itself. It's a victory for the First Amendment."

More here.

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