- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Both are thin, gentlemanly, polite and kind.

One studies medieval romance stories of jousts and chivalry; the other pores over travel receipts, actuarial studies, budgets, policing procedures and governmental codes.

Although citizen activist Curtis Lee does not dress as a knight, he is headstrong and willing to right the wrongs of his world - much like that of the fictional character Don Quixote.

In Quixote’s tilting-at-windmills world, it was understood that this 17th century gentleman had lost his mind and his medieval enemies were imaginary.

As for Lee’s world?



It, too, is complex, but his adversaries - the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund, the office of State Attorney Angela Corey and, to a lesser extent, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff John Rutherford - are very real.

Unlike Quixote, Lee is of sane mind, although a judge in New York state forced him in 2002 to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Others surely were wondering about Lee’s state of mind after he lost more than $1 million in his first Quixote-like quest.

In 1999, Lee took on his employer, New York-based National Fuel Gas Co., a company that he claimed - in detail to the media, governmental and law enforcement agencies - backdated stock option grants, effectively giving the highest paid executives more money.

Lee’s charges led to a federal investigation, but the case was dropped after the death of the company’s board compensation committee chairman.

Lee, on the other hand, lost a job valued at $190,000 a year. He lost his home. He was threatened with jail and was found in contempt of court nearly 80 times.

And he was sued by the company.

When asked by the Buffalo News in 2006 if he would do it all over again, Lee had this to say: “I would because I had to. Based on my values, I felt I had to do it.”

Because he has done it again, and again, the gawky, geeky, slightly built Lee has become an intimidating force.

So much so that his adversaries throw stones behind his back, but won’t go on the record for fear that they will turn into Lee’s next targets.

They use such words as pest and petulant and persistent to describe the 1981 New York University School of Law graduate.

But they concede this, too: When Lee pursues, he is almost always right, which a collection of later court decisions confirms.

THE NEMESIS

Fast-forward a decade since New York, and Lee is still on that quest to right perceived wrongs, but now it is a different target, in a different state: The government in Duval County, Fla.

“After the whole National Fuel thing, I figured he would find some sort of cause down there (in Florida),” said Marcia Panzarella, Lee’s older sister. “I jokingly said, ‘Oh, he’s going to need some windmills to tilt at.’ “

There have been plenty of windmills in the 12 years that Lee has lived here after essentially being forced into retirement when he gave up his law license.

In retirement and in Duval County, it was Lee who first dug into public records and informed the media, and subsequently inflamed the City Council, about Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund Executive Administrator John Keane’s lucrative pension package, later deemed illegal.

It was Lee who took on Corey’s office and made it easier for the public to pay for public records.

It was Lee who pointed out to Rutherford that his agency was following an archaic sodomy law that had long ago been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was Lee who sat near his attorney in February when the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that pits Lee, a victor in the earlier cases, against the pension fund, which does not want to have to pay his attorney’s legal bills over a public records lawsuit from 2010.

And more recently, it was Lee, who, after a four-year battle, got a judge to side with him when he ruled in March that the 30-year-agreement - a pension package for police officers and firefighters that has had a stranglehold on the city’s attempt at true pension reform - was created illegally and therefore is void.

The pension fund’s board of trustees will meet Thursday to decide if it will spend more money to battle Lee and the co-plaintiffs, the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County.

Union boss Randy Wyse says the pension fund is obligated to fight for the benefits it secured over the years. He told the taxpayer group that every penny spent fighting lawsuits over public records and meetings has been well worth the cost to the woefully underfunded pension fund.

In just the last 15 months ending in March, the pension fund has paid a South Florida attorney $235,671 to battle Lee in two cases.

“The pension fund defends its members in many different ways and court is one of them,” said Wyse, who oversees the firefighters’ union. “Not to play on words here, but we trust the trustees will take us where we need to be.”

And that is that, with Wyse refusing to say anything about his nemesis, Lee.

In a recent public pension fund meeting, however, Wyse didn’t hide his dislike and distrust.

Though there were many empty seats, Wyse chose to sit right next to Lee. When Lee left the meeting room, Wyse was on his tail, trailing his every move.

While Lee has made some enemies, to strangers he is a quiet, faceless hero willing to battle governmental agencies all in the name of respecting the taxpayers and the public’s right of access to open records in Duval County.

“Frankly, it burns me up that the pension fund would be vilifying Curt Lee,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.

To others, like Wyse and the pension fund’s Keane, Lee is like a vexing thorn that just won’t release itself from the soft spot of a foot.

Lee has sued or threatened to sue at least 12 times in Duval County.

The way that Lee, 58, the one-time promising lawyer, sees it, threats to sue can fuel change.

“In my case, I think my threatening to sue was necessary - otherwise, I would often have been ignored and/or been responded to more slowly,” Lee said. “I’d rather get the documents than litigate. I mean, who really wants to litigate? That can be a pain in the you know what.”

That pain from the two pending cases against the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund has set Lee back $185,000 in legal fees.

He’s trying to get back those fees and more than double that for the out-of-pocket expenses of his attorney, Bob Dees.

The cases are in legal limbo.

So to understand why a quiet Westside man without considerable financial means would fight well-fueled taxpayer-funded entities at the risk of losing the money he had set aside for himself when was forced into a retirement at age 44, it’s necessary to look back at Lee’s life.

THE GAME OF LIFE

Born to a chemistry-professor father and a mother who was a teacher-turned-social worker, Lee was the youngest of three children.

Summers were spent exploring places. Day-to-day life meant fierce competitions around board games.

Hoping to avoid the ultimate intelligence smackdown by a brother four years her junior, Panzarella would try to cajole him into a game of Monopoly, but not Scrabble. With Monopoly, she said, at least she had a fighting chance.

“I wasn’t interested in being beaten all the time,” Panzarella said.

Nancy Bell, eight years older than Lee, would go head-to-head with her brother.

And the brother would win.

Lee is ranked 354th in the nation and 15th in the state in Scrabble, just below expert, according to the North American Scrabble Players Association.

“He always seemed to have a good eye for seeing things and figuring out things with words. . Obviously, he’s intelligent, but he also has a head for certain things,” Panzarella said.

That head could be headstrong.

“He sticks to things,” she said. “Once he gets something in his head, he is very stubborn about it. He thinks, ‘This isn’t right, and I am going to challenge it.’ A normal person would give up.”

HOLDING BACK NOT IN DNA

“Who is he going after now?” asked Michael Beebe, a former investigative reporter from the Buffalo News who wrote about the Lee case against National Fuel.

In the midst of going to the Buffalo News so often that the trial judge cited Lee for contempt of court nearly 80 times, the judge ordered Lee to refrain from ever uttering the name National Fuel unless it was in the context of writing a bill or in preparation of a legal strategy.

A hero he did not become. After a verdict in National Fuel’s favor, Lee was ordered to live on a $1,500-a-month budget to ensure he was able to pay the judgment against him. The judge also made him inventory everything he owned - six modestly priced suits, a 1999 Buick he leased and a $78,000 home, according to the Buffalo News.

Lee had to show receipts for purchases - a great deal of tuna fish - after National Fuel put a lien on Lee’s New York home, the newspaper reported.

Counting fines, legal fees and lost wages and benefits, Lee told Beebe he was out $1.3 million after taking on his bosses, a $3 billion corporation.

Eventually, another judge reduced some of those fees. But Lee’s troubles didn’t end.

Though his legal career was over, in 2006 Lee was censured by the appellate court in Rochester, N.Y., for revealing a confidence or secret of a client and disregarding the ruling of a tribunal in the course of his National Fuel fight.

In ordering censure, the lowest form of punishment for a lawyer, the court said: “(Lee) had a sincere, although misguided, belief that the disclosures were necessary and appropriate, and he has already incurred fines and sanctions in excess of $500,000.”

Though the New York judge’s ban on Lee uttering the name National Fuel was lifted, Lee no longer will speak of the company, a reversal of the days when he would race to the Buffalo News.

“There is no winking with Curt,” Bebee said. “With Curt, you are either right or you are wrong. (It sounds like) he hasn’t changed his stripes with his Don Quixote Society.”

GAME ON

In the midst of the chaos his whistle-blowing caused him in New York, Lee moved to Jacksonville in 2003. In 2009, a story in The Florida Times-Union on the woefully underfunded Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund piqued his interest.

“I just saw the whole thing as a huge injustice, and I don’t like injustice,” Lee said.

Not one for golf, or to putter around in the garden, Lee gave up his spot on the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus because it practiced on the same nights as City Council meetings.

Lee became a regular at council and pension fund meetings. Requesting documents from the pension fund triggered a showdown that has lasted five years and counting - it is now at the Florida Supreme Court.

Before Lee could even touch the documents he wanted to look at, he was told he would have to pay $326.

Lee said he would pay only for the documents he wanted to copy.

The pension fund still wanted the $326, plus $280 to have someone monitor him while he sorted through the records.

Lee sued.

A court last May ordered the pension fund to pay $75,000 of Lee’s legal fees. At that point in the case, the pension fund had spent $290,000 in legal fees to fight Lee over the public records case.

The legal bill has continued to grow, now inching toward $450,000, all over what started as a $326 fee.

“Shame on the police and fire pension fund (for always appealing) and taking it to the Florida Supreme Court,” City Councilman John Crescembeni said. “This is a citizen spending his own time and his own money trying to get information about an entity that is misbehaving. It is David versus Goliath. It really is, and we know how that turned out.”

Lee doesn’t intend to hurl real stones and then cut the head off his Goliath, but he has been relentless in drawing attention to problems, both financial and ethical, at the pension fund.

There are more than 1,100 emails between Lee and City Hall, with the vast majority coming from Lee.

“He really wants to help the community,” said Dees, Lee’s lawyer. “He recognizes he has a lot of knowledge about pensions - which causes a lot of people’s eyes to glaze over, especially when you have some strong personalities at the pension fund who are used to having things done their way - and if you don’t have someone who can see through what they are doing, well, they just keep doing it.

“So it took somebody with a combination of knowledge to understand what was going on, but also the willingness and tenacity to put himself out there.”

Crescembeni said he appreciates all Lee has done.

“I’ve learned a lot of things from Curtis Lee’s letters that I probably should have known or heard about from the executive branch or the council auditor’s office,” Crescembeni said. “Where would be without Curt Lee?”

‘MR. JUSTICE’

The access to public records paved the way for Lee’s 2011 suit against the pension fund and the city of Jacksonville, alleging that the entities had a years-long history of negotiating pension benefits in private, dating to talks that created the 30-year agreement. Lee, with the concerned taxpayer group, asked that a judge toss the pact on the grounds the pension talks were conducted behind closed doors, which is contrary to the state’s Sunshine Law.

“Even though the original disagreement was over the $326 issue, it is much more important than that,” Dees said. “I think it shows the importance of citizens being able to access government records; because without that, we would not have been able to build and support our case that they (the city and police and fire pension fund) had negotiated pension benefits behind closed doors - always.”

The city already has acquiesced to the judge’s ruling. The pension fund’s board of trustees is expected to vote Thursday on whether to appeal.

“I feel certain (the police and fire pension fund) will appeal; they like nothing but to waste taxpayer money,” Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County President John Winkler said.

Characteristically, Lee will not give up.

“We need more citizens like him,” Crescembeni said. “He’s a model of a person not giving in at the expense of the truth. He is like Mr. Justice. There should be a (Curtlis Lee) superhero, because he is spending his own money. Most people don’t have the courage. And I think the citizens of Jacksonville should be very thankful that we have a Curtis Lee.”

Lee brushes off the notion that he is modern-day hero. And he laughs when asked about the similarities to Don Quixote, the 17th century book character whose name keeps coming up in discussion about - or in front of - Lee.

“No. 1, I don’t think I am crazy. I might have some odd moments, but I do think that I am fundamentally sane,” he said. “Am I unusual? I’m definitely unusual for making efforts to fix things that are wrong. But I think people should do that to make the world a better place.

“Can you imagine how awful the world would be if nobody made efforts like that? We would probably still be living in the age of slavery if people didn’t make the effort. To rephrase a Alfred Lord Tennyson quote: It is better to have tried to improve things and lost than to never have tried at all.”

As for how Don Quixote turned out?

“Basically he lost his mind,” Lee said. “And I don’t think that I am tilting at windmills.”

___

Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com

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