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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi deflects controversy over firings, angry memo

TALLAHASSEE — It has been a rough month for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

She faced criticism in late July for the forced resignations of two attorneys leading the state's foreclosure fraud investigations.

Then last week, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Spark released a 16-page diatribe accusing the office of failing to aggressively pursue foreclosure and consumer protection cases.

"The people of the State of Florida are entitled to fair and honest government, independent of personal connections and powerful interests, and I have decided to speak out," Spark wrote. He quit the next day.

Democrats are seizing on the controversy, turning what Bondi has characterized as issues with subpar, disgruntled personnel into political embarrassment by calling for independent investigations and introducing legislation aimed at Bondi's office.

Among Spark's revelations: Two top lawyers left Bondi's office to work for companies under investigation, and when he launched an examination of the advertising practices at Tampa's Ferman Motor Cars, his supervisor noted that Robert Shimberg, who helped raise money for Bondi's campaign and served on her transition team, is Ferman's company attorney.

"This appears to be a small case, but the target is a very prominent Tampa business and their long time counsel is Robert Shimberg," wrote Richard Lawson, director of the AG's Economic Crimes Division, in an e-mail after Spark received approval to investigate Ferman. "You should be aware of this in case the AG has any questions. If the case develops into something more significant I will advise accordingly."

A short time later, Spark's direct supervisor suggested that the case be settled by allowing Ferman to resolve the advertising question with fine print.

The case is ongoing, said Jennifer Meale, a spokeswoman for Bondi. Spark notes in his memo that Lawson's e-mail didn't mean Shimberg's firm expected anything in exchange for his involvement with the transition team, "just that several people at the Division of Economic Crimes reacted as if he did."

Bondi dismisses the notion that Ferman received special treatment.

"My only goal from day one has been to go after the bad guys, and give favoritism to no one," she said.

Spark, she said, released his memo after learning he himself was under investigation.

"I wish I could micromanage this office of 1,200 employees," she said. "I can't."

It was Lawson who made the decision to dismiss the Fort Lauderdale-based foreclosure attorneys, June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards.

The two say they were fired for political reasons, and had received glowing performance reviews from their previous boss, Bill McCollum.

Bondi's office, though, has said their work was less than stellar.

Shortly after Bondi took office, Lawson met with attorneys for one of the firms they were investigating, Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services, who complained that Edwards and Clarkson included inappropriate information in a presentation to court clerks.

Edwards and Clarkson also wrote a subpoena challenged in Palm Beach County by the law firm of Shapiro & Fishman, also under investigation for irregularities in foreclosure proceedings.

A circuit judge in October deemed the subpoena "vague," "burdensome," "invasive" and "unlikely to reveal actionable conduct." An appeals court upheld the ruling in April.

Around that time, the two also released a subpoena that was part of a multistate investigation of Lender Processing Services to a South Florida blogger, Lawson said.

"That was extraordinarily embarrassing and could have been very problematic for these investigations," Lawson said.

A few weeks later, he offered Edwards and Clarkson the opportunity to resign or be fired.

"It was apparent there would be one error after another," Lawson said.

As for Spark, a spokeswoman for Bondi said he was "repeatedly failing to meet performance standards" and was the subject of an investigation for using his work computer to do personal business with an auction company he was investigating.

But his screed has resonated, creating at the very least a public relations nightmare for Bondi.

The memo notes that Assistant Attorney General Joe Jacquot left his state job in May to work for Lender Processing Services, and Mary Leontakianakos, formerly head of the state's Economic Crimes Division, this summer went to work for Marshall Watson, a Fort Lauderdale law firm that in March paid $2 million to settle a foreclosure fraud inquiry.

Both Jacquot and Leontakianakos say they had no connection to investigations of the companies they went to work for.

Both say they will abide by the state ethics law that forbids them from representing their new employers before the Attorney General's Office for two years.

Still, the revelation prompted Democratic state Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando to introduce a bill he calls the "Florida Investigatory Integrity Act," which limits the ability of employees in the Attorney General's Office to work for companies that have been investigated.

Soto and other lawmakers also pressed for an investigation into the resignations of Clarkson and Edwards. Although Bondi has stood by Lawson's assertion that the two were forced out for poor performance, she did express concern that their deficiencies weren't properly documented and has asked an outside inspector general to look at the firings.

"I wouldn't be able to say there's some greater conspiracy going on based on the information I have," Soto said. "My concern is that Clarkson and Edwards were fired to help out the banks and my concern among some of the employees who left is at least the perception of a coziness between the banks, the mortgage industry and the Attorney General's Office."

Meanwhile, the liberal advocacy group Progress Florida is circulating news reports about Bondi's managerial problems, calling it, "Bondigate."

"You learn when you get elected, sadly, that politics play into everything," Bondi said. "It's tough when people accuse you with baseless allegations, but I'm going to continue to do what I know is right."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi deflects controversy over firings, angry memo 08/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 11:19pm]
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