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Charles Trippe's litigation experience serves him well as Gov. Rick Scott's top attorney

TALLAHASSEE — Charles Trippe had been on the job as Gov. Rick Scott's top attorney less than a day when two state senators walked into his office and handed him a lawsuit filed in the Florida Supreme Court.

The pair wanted justices to force the governor to proceed with a high-speed rail project approved by state lawmakers using $2.4 billion in federal money.

Trippe, a 58-year-old former corporate lawyer with no political experience, had one day to prepare a court brief and two days to ready himself for oral arguments. It was Trippe's first time before the state's highest court.

Operating on just a few hours of sleep, he scored a victory that day in early March when the justices dismissed the case.

It was a job start no one would envy. But he has no ordinary job.

For Trippe, who drove a cab to help pay his way through law school and went on to successfully defend a client sued by Enron before the company imploded, representing the governor offers late-career excitement and a rare public service opportunity.

As a defendant in at least seven lawsuits since he took office in January, Scott could be the most sued governor in Florida history. And Trippe now finds himself deep in cases relating to election law, drug testing of state employees, redistricting and prison privatization.

Some speculate the avalanche of lawsuits involving Scott has more to do with dislike of the governor than his actions related to the legislation or policies in question.

But having once represented a tobacco company, Trippe is used to controversial clients.

"They're not always popular, but even unpopular clients need a lawyer," he said of the tobacco company. "The rules should apply to everybody whether they're popular or not."

Trippe, a graduate of Columbia Law School, came to Scott's administration from Jacksonville, where he was in private practice, and before that, a senior litigator for railroad company CSX Transportation Inc.

This job marks his first foray into government work and the world of politics.

And already, Trippe has faced the harsh criticism often hurled in political circles.

When arguing the high-speed rail case, he told justices the state had spent $110 million of the $131 million that had been appropriated by the federal government. In fact, the state had spent only $31 million.

Some rail supporters believe that fact was a linchpin in the case.

And e-mails show the governor's communications staff had the correct figure. That prompted die-hard bullet train backers to accuse Trippe of deliberately misleading the justices.

Trippe, though, said it was simply a mistake and a small point that wouldn't have changed the outcome. Still, he wrote a letter to the court to correct the record.

Three months later, Trippe appeared before the Supreme Court again on behalf of Scott, this time in a challenge of the constitutionality of an executive order requiring the governor's approval for new rules implementing state laws. A final decision is pending.

Court appearances, though, comprise a small part of his job.

Instead, he has analyzed bills, helped the governor appoint judges and members of judicial nominating commissions, and advised on public records issues.

Trippe also helped Scott choose from more than 400 cases when signing his first death warrant in July.

It's out-of-the-ordinary work that offers Trippe a break from his many years as a litigator.

Exceedingly humble, he called it a "tremendous opportunity" with "immense responsibilities."

"I hope I'm up to them," he said.

Former colleagues say it's not surprising that Trippe would give up his high-paying job in private practice to serve the state, where he earns a salary of $140,000.

They describe him as a fierce litigator, patriotic, courteous, a voracious reader, devoted to his family and dedicated to legal principles, including a commitment to pro bono work and public service.

"If you look at his academic and business credentials, they're very, very strong. Top law school, top law firms," said Ellen Fitzsimmons, general counsel at CSX, who deemed his resume "stunning."

"It's a good sign that he is passionate about the public good," she said.

As Trippe explains it: "To whom much is given much is expected."

He comes from humble beginnings. His father left the family when Trippe was 12, leaving his mother, a schoolteacher, to raise four children alone, in a town near Boston.

The oldest child in the family, Trippe worked through much of high school and college, as a helper in a shoe-machinery shop, a clerk at United Fruit Co. and later as a cab driver.

"It paid more than being an office boy, and I needed the money to fund my education," Trippe said of his taxi days. "You learn some people skills there because you pretty much see it all."

After graduating from law school, he worked at firms in Boston and New York before taking a job in 1986 at Jones Day, where the tobacco company and Enron cases fell on his desk.

He left the firm in 1994 to work for CSX in Jacksonville.

"It was essentially so that I could spend more time with the family," Trippe said. Commuting from the suburbs to New York City made for long days, he said.

His work at CSX became an issue for opponents of SunRail, the central Florida commuter rail line approved by the governor this month. The deal involves a $432 million payment to CSX for use of the company's tracks and improvements to CSX freight lines elsewhere in the state. After putting the project on hold, Scott approved it, citing legal reasons.

Detractors charged Scott got bad advice from Trippe because of his ties to CSX. But Trippe removed himself from any discussion of that project because of that prior relationship, according to a memo circulated internally in the Governor's Office.

Trippe left the company in 2001 to work as a partner at the Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones law firm in Jacksonville.

He entered Scott's orbit through Enu Mainigi, a Washington lawyer and longtime associate of Scott's, who helped orchestrate his campaign for governor and create the foundation of his administration.

Mainigi said she reached out to Trippe after other people recommended him.

She asked Trippe to help then-candidate Scott in a campaign finance case that stopped the flow of public money to his political opponents.

"It was his track record in assisting us on that litigation that suggested to me he would be an ideal candidate for the general counsel's role," she said.

Mainigi said she was looking for an outsider, someone not from Tallahassee, not a lobbyist. A background in policy and politics was unimportant. The job didn't require fielding media requests, working with legislators or meeting with lobbyists.

"The thought was there will be plenty of people like that in the office. It would be nice to have someone in the general counsel's office who's looking at it from a different angle," she said.

The goal was to create an environment similar to a major corporation, she said, where Scott could count on the type of legal advice he received as chief executive of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain.

Scott said Trippe's temperament appealed to him.

"He has a great reputation as a lawyer," the governor said. "On top of that, he's a very measured person. He wants to do the right thing. I feel good that the advice he gives me is well thought out."

Trippe said he thought hard about whether to take the job, which requires him to commute to and from his home in Jacksonville, a drive made more pleasant by listening to a Frank Sinatra channel on satellite radio.

"I was hesitant, to tell you the truth. I'm not a political person and I'm not the most prominent lawyer in Florida," he said. "But I met the governor and felt like I should take the job."

He said he believes in Scott's vision for the state.

"I'd like to do my best to make sure he's successful," Trippe said. "I agree with him on just about everything he says on public and political matters. And I think it's important at this point in our history, the history of this country, that we deal with some of these issues. I know people have different views on how those issues have to be dealt with, but it is time to deal with them."

This job, he said, is not a launching pad for anything else.

"I will not be a judge. It's not part of my plans or what I want to do. I have absolutely no plans to run for elected office and I won't be a lobbyist," he said. "I prefer to go back and be a lawyer. That's what I've done for 31 years and that's what I plan to do when I leave public service."

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

Charles Trippe

Age: 58. Born: Winthrop, Mass.

Professional experience: Partner, Jones Day law firm, New York; general counsel for litigation, CSX Transportation Inc., Jacksonville; partner, Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones law firm, Jacksonville.

Family: Married to Pam Reichheld, an anesthesiologist; children James, 21; Marta, 20; and Douglas, 18.

Education: Joint bachelor of arts/law degree from Columbia College/Columbia Law School, New York.

Charles Trippe's litigation experience serves him well as Gov. Rick Scott's top attorney 07/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 25, 2011 11:44am]
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