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Bayside Reserves law firm has conflict of interest, foes say

Opponents of a controversial affordable housing project proposed near the Bayside Bridge question whether an influential Clearwater law firm is working too many sides of the deal.

Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns is the longtime general counsel for a county agency critical to the project. At the same time, one of the firm's attorneys represents the project's developer.

Pinellas County officials say no conflict of interest now exists, though trouble is possible if the deal goes forward. And the law firm's president, Ed Armstrong, said internal controls are in place to prevent problems.

Those assurances bring no comfort to David Waddell, who's helping lead the citizen charge against the project.

"If it's a duck and it's got webbed feet and it quacks, it's a duck," Waddell said, "not a chicken."

Real estate agent and developer Roger Broderick and Banc of America Community Development Corp. want to build 209 apartments just west of the southern end of the bridge. At least 42 units in the Bayside Reserves complex would be available as work force housing.

Also proposed are 10 single-family waterfront homes to be sold at market rates.

Critical to the deal is the involvement of the Pinellas County Housing Finance Authority, an affiliate of the county's Community Development Department. The authority works with the private sector to develop and pay for affordable housing.

Armstrong's firm has been the housing authority's general counsel since 1986. The firm, largely because of Armstrong's close relationships with elected officials and political activism, enjoys a high degree of insider access at the county courthouse.

In a move that galls Waddell and other opponents, Johnson, Pope attorney Steve Williamson represents Broderick and Banc of America in the deal.

Williamson has helped draft a preliminary development agreement between his private clients, the county and the housing authority. He's also appeared before the County Commission to discuss proposed land use changes needed to make the project happen.

Armstrong said conflicts are avoided in his firm through scrupulous adherence to the lawyers' code of professional conduct. Another attorney in the firm, Mike Cronin, is assigned to the housing authority, he said, while Williamson handles land use cases.

Between them is what's often called a "Chinese wall," Armstrong said, which prohibits either man from sharing information with the other that could confer an advantage. Such barriers to conflict, also called "ethical screens," are often necessary in large legal firms, he said.

Though that barrier is up and respected, Armstrong said that practically speaking, the two men's work is so distinct neither would have reason to banter over the business with the other, and have not.

"It's a separate scope of tasks," he said. "There is no overlap."

Waddell, who has helped get more than 500 signatures on a petition against the project, is unmoved.

"Who's kidding who?" he said. "As far as I'm concerned, they are playing both sides of the fence at taxpayers' expense."

On July 22, the County Commission is scheduled to consider the land use changes needed to get the project off the ground.

Should that happen, Broderick and Banc of America may need to appear before the housing authority to work out a financing structure.

In that case, Williamson would step aside as the Broderick/Banc of America representative, Armstrong said, in order to satisfy the standards of professional conduct for lawyers.

There's more to the story than just Williamson, Waddell said.

Johnson, Pope partner Dennis Ruppel and Broderick developed the Whetstone Apartments in Pinellas Park in the mid 1980s and still share business relationships, which Armstrong described as wholly appropriate.

Also representing the developers in the Bayside Reserve deal is former Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers.

"When I start to digest all this," Waddell said, "it doesn't go down well."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

>>Fast facts

Opposition builds to Bayside Reserves plan

It's not just neighbors who oppose the proposed Bayside Reserves project. Late last week, the Clearwater Audubon Society announced it was against the plan because of a nearby bald eagle nest. Audubon member Barbara Walker said the nest sits in a cell phone tower 660 feet from the project's property line. At the height of the recently ended nesting season, four eagles called the tower home, Walker said. County planning officials have indicated the nest is too far from the development to be affected.

Bayside Reserves law firm has conflict of interest, foes say 07/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 7:18pm]
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