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Client-turned-adversary accuses Tampa law firm of conflict in judicial bid

TAMPA — Chris Rodems wants to be a judge. In the past year, he has applied for five openings on the Hillsborough County bench.

One of his law partners and close friends, Chris Barker, is vice chairman of the commission that has considered Rodems' applications and nominated him for several of the positions.

Is that a conflict of interest?

Neil Gillespie thinks so. The former Tampa Bay area resident, who is involved in a lengthy legal dispute with Barker and Rodems' law firm, filed a complaint this month with the Governor's Office. He argues, among other things, that Barker's position gives his law partner an unfair advantage.

But Barker and Pedro Bajo Jr., chairman of the 13th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, said they've taken steps to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Each time Rodems has applied, Barker — one of nine commission members — has not participated in any interviews, deliberations or votes involving his law partner or has recused himself from the entire nominating process.

"We all know several of the applicants in some fashion," Bajo said. "So the question is, does it create a conflict or not create a conflict? We try to bend over backwards to make sure any perceived conflicts are addressed appropriately."

The commission vets the candidates and recommends a short list to Gov. Charlie Crist, who makes the final decision. "Just as I don't have the JNC in my pocket, I definitely don't have him," Barker said.

Bajo said an attorney's membership on the commission should not disqualify his or her partners from applying for judgeships. Barker and Rodems are partners at a three-lawyer firm, but Bajo and other commission members work for firms with hundreds of attorneys.

Excluding all those attorneys from the potential pool of applicants would not be in the best interest of the process, Bajo said.

Gillespie, 53, is a former client of the Barker, Rodems & Cook law firm. He filed a suit against attorney Bill Cook and the firm for fraud and breach of contract in 2005 and has been in contentious litigation with them since.

Several of his claims have been dismissed, and he has been sanctioned by the courts. He has moved to disqualify three judges from the case, most recently contending that Circuit Judge James Barton's actions contributed to the death of Gillespie's mother.

Gillespie also has written Crist and Bajo to oppose Rodems' judicial applications. Bajo said the JNC fully investigated Gillespie's complaints.

Rodems, a board-certified civil trial attorney, is among six nominees being considered by the governor to fill retiring County Judge Raul "Sonny" Palomino Jr.'s position. On Monday, the JNC also will interview him for a vacant circuit court seat.

"I think he's regarded as a very good, solid, strong candidate," Bajo said. Barker has not been involved in either proceeding.

Rodems points out that he previously was among those recommended for six judgeships in Polk County, where his law partner is not a member of the JNC. In Hillsborough, he has so far been nominated for three of the five positions he sought.

"I'm actually batting a thousand in Polk County, and not quite so good in Hillsborough County," he quipped.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Client-turned-adversary accuses Tampa law firm of conflict in judicial bid 01/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 11:53pm]
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