Sunday, October 14, 2018
News Roundup

Crusading attorney's work for the 'people's business'

ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Weidner sits in his law office, watching an archived video of the Jan. 13 state Cabinet meeting, trying to explain why he got so angry, so fed up, that he sued the governor.

On the computer screen, Gov. Rick Scott introduces the new Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief Rick Swearingen, replacing the well-respected Gerald Bailey, who had retired a month before. Cabinet members shake his hand.

But before lunchtime was even over that day, it was clear Bailey's resignation was more a firing, orchestrated and kept quiet by Scott's office.

"This is the people's business," Weidner says, his voice rising an exasperated octave as he watches the grins and backslaps on camera. "It looks like a carnival."

Weidner, 43, admits to being obsessed with Scott's firing of Bailey, "Googling and Googling, wanting to get down to the bottom of it."

Finally, he filed a lawsuit claiming Scott and the three Cabinet members had violated open government laws. The Associated Press and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors eventually joined.

It's not the only time this spring that Weidner made headlines. The St. Petersburg City Council also approved a contract for Weidner, a well-known foreclosure defense lawyer, and another attorney to attempt a largely untested plan to force the city's "zombie" properties to auction by asking a judge.

Among the first lawyers to carve out a niche defending homeowners caught in the housing bust, his success brought him to the attention of New Yorker staff writer George Packer, who profiled Weidner's impassioned advocacy in his 2013 book The Unwinding.

It wasn't always the plan. Weidner grew up in Ormond Beach with a schoolteacher father and a mother who worked as a secretary and a homemaker. His father drove 90 minutes each way to teach agriculture to underprivileged African-American students at a New Smyrna Beach middle school — an early lesson for Weidner in idealism.

As a child, Weidner wanted to emulate his uncle Don Weidner, the executive director of the state Republican Party in the late 1970s.

At Florida State University, he took courses in political communication and thought he would manage campaigns.

His college friend, John R. Cappa II, remembers Weidner as someone who could talk to anybody and usually charm them.

"Most people back then just wanted to talk about football. But he would want to debate current events," Cappa recalls.

Weidner was a lifelong Republican who used to argue years later with Cappa about George W. Bush and the Iraq War.

"I was a true believer," Weidner said.

But over the years his politics shifted. Now a registered Democrat, Weidner backed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in 2013.

His first job out of law school was as an executive director for several medical trade associations, which introduced him to the politics practiced in Tallahassee. In charge of hiring lobbyists, he said lawmakers gauged the heft of envelopes full of campaign contributions before deciding how long to listen to his pitch.

"It was corrupt then. It's only gotten worse," he said.

A job with his uncle's law firm in Jacksonville followed, but that career path was cut short by his uncle's death in a plane crash in 2001. Weidner was supposed to be on the small plane that his uncle piloted that night, but a last-minute change of plans saved his life.

Suddenly adrift, he came to St. Petersburg at the suggestion of Cappa, renting space at Cappa's law offices on Central Avenue.

"I was a door lawyer. I took anything that came through the door," Weidner said.

Cappa remembers his college buddy as an impassioned attorney from the start. Early on, Weidner took on a couple who had been defrauded by a con man. He wrote a letter to the crook threatening to pursue criminal prosecution if he didn't return the money.

The state Bar association was notified and sent Weidner a letter warning him against overzealously representing his clients.

"I told him you should take that letter and frame it," Cappa said.

Within a few years, what started coming through the door of the firm's Central Avenue office were foreclosures. And Weidner realized early on that it would only get worse. He railed against shoddy loan practices like robo-signing. He sometimes drew the ire of the bench.

Retiring 6th Judicial Circuit Judge J. Thomas McGrady expressed concerns to the state Bar about five years ago after some judges complained about Weidner, including helping a defendant representing himself whom he noticed floundering in court.

"A perfect example of him trying to advocate for people who might not be able to defend themselves," Cappa said.

Nothing came of the complaint, but Weidner said it made him a better, more humble, lawyer.

McGrady declined an interview request, instead issuing a statement through a spokesman: "Matt is very passionate about the causes he endorses."

Glenn Goldberg is a St. Petersburg attorney who represents banks in foreclosures, making him a longtime courtroom opponent of Weidner.

"I enjoy litigating against him. … Sometimes you see attorneys who don't want to do their job. Matt always does his job, he's a caring, interested litigant," Goldberg said.

Weidner hasn't ruled out going back to his first love: politics. He ran as an independent for a state House seat won by Democrat Dwight Dudley in 2012, but didn't actively campaign.

But Weidner's lawsuit against a sitting governor might complicate any plans, political or otherwise.

Barbara A. Petersen has known Weidner for 20 years. He's always been passionate, she said, and motivated by a sense of civic responsibility. Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for government transparency and receives major support from foundations and Florida news organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times.

"You don't easily decide to sue your governor. He's got a wife. He's got a family. . . . But Matt made (the decision) long before any media organizations decided to join him. He took the first step," Petersen said.

Weidner's wife, Tiffany, and two sons — Thomas, 30 months and William, 16 months — spend much of their day in Weidner's new offices, a restored Cade Allen building on the shores of downtown's Mirror Lake. A playroom is set up across the hall from his office.

Packer noted in his book that Weidner had an apocalyptic mind-set during the depressing crush of the recent recession. He now thinks he underestimated the resilience of the American economy. But he still openly worries about the "fascism" creeping into state government. And, on his drive to work from his Snell Isle home, wonders how the current real estate boom will be sustained.

"The world is in desperate, terribly bad shape," he said. "I would say, 'Somebody has got to do something.' But then I realized: I'm somebody."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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