A former state and federal prison inmate won $3,000 in damages from the Erie County Prosecutor’s office after proving in court the county failed to provide public records in a timely manner.
Lonny Bristow, 45, of Wooster, won the $3,000 in a ruling announced Wednesday by the state’s Sixth District appeals court in Toledo, but he isn’t satisfied. Bristow plans to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court to press his argument he should have been awarded $21,000.
Since he files so many lawsuits in Ohio, the court system has labeled Bristow a vexatious litigator. That means that before he files a new lawsuit, he must obtain court permission first by demonstrating that his court action is legitimate. A search at the Erie County Court Clerk’s online record system shows 29 court cases Bristow has filed in Sandusky.
Commenting on his legal victory, Bristow said, “That should make the prosecutors look pretty bad, a vexatious litigator just kicked their a--.”
Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter said he strongly supports legitimate public records requests but said Bristow’s case demonstrates the public records law can be used for harassment.
Pointing to the fact that Bristow has filed dozens of records requests in Erie County, including 42 requests filed over 42 business days, Baxter said it might be time to refine state law.
“There needs to be some legislative action,” Baxter said.
Bristow, who is unemployed but aspires to go to school and become a paralegal, has filed many public records requests in Ohio.
Last year, he filed requests demanding various county offices in Erie County provide records, including personnel files for prosecutor’s office employees and vacation requests from Baxter’s employees.
Bristow succeeded in getting a court order for compliance when he didn’t get an immediate response. He was able to show that some records weren’t produced for 22 days, despite a 14-day deadline.
The appeals court ruled against Bristow and in favor of Sheriff Paul Sigsworth in one dispute, agreeing with the sheriff that Bristow wasn’t entitled to the sheriff’s cell phone records. Sigsworth argued turning over the records could jeopardize investigations and the use of confidential informants, and the appeals court agreed.
Although appeals judges Mark Pietryskowski, Thomas Osowik and Christine Mayle ruled that Bristow could collect $3,000 in damages, noting that the law doesn’t allow public officials to make judgments on the merits of public records requests, Bristow said he should have been awarded $21,000 and is already pursuing his appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“It’s not about greed,” Bristow said. “They didn’t do what they’re supposed to do.”
In response to a Register inquiry, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction sent a document Thursday showing Bristow served time in state prison for escape, phone harassment, misuse of credit cards, theft and many other charges.
Bristow said his main violation was successfully using a bogus letterhead to send a forged document from a purported Ohio probation officer, ordering a friend’s release from jail in Georgia.
While in prison, Bristow hacked the prison’s telephone system, took control of 23 telephone lines, and rented the phones to inmates. As a result, three years and three months were added to his prison sentence.
Bristow also served time in federal prison after he was caught using prepaid calling cards to phone in bomb threats to dozens of public buildings, often courthouses, in five states.
He said he has changed his life and no longer commits crimes.
“I don’t do nothing criminal. Especially in this county,” he said while interviewed Thursday at the Register.
He said he files his public records requests to determine if public officials follow the law, typically discarding the resulting documents after inspecting them.
Baxter said Bristow’s filing of more than 100 public records requests in Erie County is a clear abuse of the law.
The prosecutor’s office has two attorneys who handle civil matters, serving as the lawyers for dozens of local governments, including county commissioners, townships and county offices such as the election board.
“We are the lawyer for everybody. They send their public records requests to us,” Baxter said. “Do we need to put on another lawyer to handle Lonny Bristow’s requests?”