Businesses exploiting public records laws to get clients

This story was written by Jack Smith IV, Ben Eisler and Don Dahler.

Public records laws allow citizens to get important records from the government. All they have to do is file a formal request. But now, some businesses are filing requests to help them identify clients, and taxpayers are footing the bill.

If you get a traffic ticket in New Jersey, your full name, home address, the date, and type of violation are public. So anyone can obtain that information by filing a simple records request.

After Ruben Rodriguez was charged with a passing violation, he got seven letters in the mail -- all from lawyers looking to represent him.

Rodriguez, of Union City, N.J., said, "I thought it was harassment. It's an invasion of privacy. If you don't know people, how can they just send you letters? Lawyers, to defend you, as if I was a criminal. I didn't like that."

Nancy Saffos, town clerk in Cherry Hill and president of the Municipal Clerks' Association of New Jersey, says the problem is bigger than just privacy -- records requests from businesses are swamping local governments.

Saffos said, "Businesses have now recognized that the Open Public Records Act gives them access to records that help them build a customer and database."

CBS News' Don Dahler asked, "So tax dollars are being spent for the sake of the businesses to gain customers or information on how better to sell their goods or services?"

Saffos replied, "' Absolutely."

Saffos says roughly a quarter of the records requests they receive come from businesses. Her office gathered an entire stack of accident reports for just one of them. She says the work involved for something like this can cost hundreds of taxpayer dollars.

Dahler asked, "He's just trying to find clients."

Saffos said, "Just trying to find clients."

These requests often come from the same people - "repeaters…who have been able to downsize their companies as far as employees because now they use us," Saffos said.

"It's a great deal for them," Saffos said.

But New Jersey attorney Britt Simon, who uses public records to identify clients, questions how big of a problem this really is.

Simon, of Simon Law Group, said, "The abuses are few and far between and are being identified by a group of people who don't want focus or don't want the extra work."

Simon says he and most other firms obtain the records from an online database. So they are not creating more work for the government. He adds that his solicitations inform people of rights they may not be aware of.

"In many cases, they don't know that they have the ability to get an attorney and there are options for them," Simon said.

Dahler asked, "But they can pick up a phone or go in the phone book and find attorneys to represent them. It's not like they're going to be out there without any chance of having an attorney."

"They're not really left with a phone book, they're left with the Internet," Simon said. "And it's really easy to use the Internet, to quite frankly, lie and mislead people. … In our case, every time we send a letter out it costs 46 cents for a stamp. ... They know we're committed to that area of the business."

Dahler remarked, "But I will say that, for a lot of people, the initial reaction when they receive that letter is A -- embarrassment that someone knows they got pulled over for speeding or whatever it is, and B -- they're wondering, 'Well, who's snooping around in my life?'"

Simon replied, "The question of who's snooping around in their life is the courts - the courts is where the data comes from."

Open records laws vary from state to state, but all states have them in one form or another. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have the most open public records, while Maryland, Colorado, West Virginia, Virginia, and South Carolina the least open.

New Jersey ranked as the sixth most open state. And while the complaints about commercial requests don't worry Simon, they do concern Democratic State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. She's currently crafting a bill to limit abuse. Weinberg said, "Have we found a fail-safe solution? The answer is no. But are we trying to balance the right to know? I think we're working very hard to do that."

Until then, Saffos says, taxpayers will foot the bill.

Dahler asked, "You don't think that's what the law was intended to do?"

Saffos said, "I am certain the legislators did not envision that this law would help businesses build their customer and client base."

Dahler added on "CBS This Morning" that Weinberg's bill would add extra costs for very large requests, but would not add any restrictions to requests from businesses, in particular. Commercial requests come not just from attorneys - but from title companies looking for liens, and in some states, even pet stores for new dog license applications.