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Influential lawyer gets too close to Pinellas business for comfort

Clients pay Ed Armstrong for legal help and his access to the upper reaches of county government, where leaders enjoy the benefits of being close to the Clearwater lawyer but are wary of appearing too cozy.

It's a delicate dance of interests, and Armstrong may have overstepped it at last week's Pinellas County Commission meeting, where roughly 250 residents came to be heard on a slate of contentious land use cases.

The commission's chamber, which is on the fifth floor of the County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater, was packed. The overflow crowd was sequestered a floor below and down in the courthouse lobby.

Armstrong was neither in the chamber nor waiting with the crowd as things got under way. The lawyer was in a private conference room near the chamber where county staff members watch commission meetings on a monitor.

Bad move, said commission Chairman Bob Stewart.

"That's territory that I would describe as out of bounds," Stewart said. "If you are from the visiting team, you don't sit or socialize in the home team dugout. And there shouldn't be exceptions."

Some critics charge that Armstrong has a dark influence on the commission, and he acknowledges doing his image no favors by being in the room, which is normally closed to the public and is at the end of a hallway where commissioners have offices.

"Rest assured, there is no way I will ever go back there again in my career," Armstrong said. "I know I've got to be careful and this really brings that home."

Appearances matter to Armstrong, 51, perhaps the closest thing Pinellas politics has to a rainmaker. Seeking his support is standard for many who decide they want to sit on the County Commission or another local council.

He advises political leaders on policy and how to deal with the media, and he represents developers before them. Employees of the Clearwater firm where Armstrong has made his name, Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns, give thousands of dollars to campaigns each year.

The Church of Scientology has turned to him in the past, as did the Tampa Bay Rays in May when they needed help keeping alive a plan for a waterfront ballpark in St. Petersburg.

Armstrong said that when he arrived for the Oct. 21 meeting, the commission's chamber was full. County communications director Tim Closterman told him he couldn't enter, Armstrong said, so he asked where he should go. The conference room, Armstrong said Closterman told him.

Closterman said he did not remember directing Armstrong to the room, but said it was chaotic and he may have.

"That's overflow for staff," Closterman said. "Him being in there is an oversight. It's not common practice."

Armstrong said there were about 15 staff members in the room and another 15 people who were obviously members of the public. At the time, a lawyer for his firm was arguing for a land use change before the commission in a controversial affordable housing case.

Watching the meeting from the conference room was a first, said Armstrong, who was there to argue a case later in the evening on behalf of an asphalt company seeking heavier industrial use of its land. He would lose the hearing.

Ethel Hammer, a land use consultant who was with Armstrong, confirmed his account of the encounter with Closterman and said that while in the conference room there was no discussion with the staff. The client in the asphalt case was there also, she said, and talk was confined to strategy.

As soon as the affordable housing hearing was over — the decision went in favor of Armstrong's firm — the group left the conference room to find seating in the chamber, Hammer said.

Given the hectic atmosphere and Closterman's instructions, Armstrong said he didn't give much thought to going in the conference room, but felt somewhat uncomfortable there. He wishes, he said, that he could "rewind the tape" and wait with the public.

County Commissioner Karen Seel, who has known Armstrong since their days at Clearwater's Oak Grove Junior High School, said she spoke with her friend and told him he had badly goofed.

"Whether he went on his own or was sent there, it would not be appropriate," Seel said. "He could have sat out in the audience, and that's where he should have been."

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

Influential lawyer gets too close to Pinellas business for comfort 10/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 30, 2008 9:03pm]
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