Former attorney general's contact with Pam Bondi's office raises questions

The former attorney general says he's acting as a lawyer and doesn't need to register as a lobbyist.
Published November 28 2014
Updated November 30 2014

TALLAHASSEE — When the cruise line Royal Caribbean sought to amend a 1997 consumer protection agreement with the Florida Attorney General's Office, it hired a lawyer familiar with the agency's inner workings.

Former Attorney General Bill McCollum called on the staff of his successor, Pam Bondi. Six months after the June 2013 meeting, Bondi's office granted McCollum's request.

Royal Caribbean's advertised rates would no longer have to include fees for services like baggage handling and loading cargo. The fees, which can inflate a trip's cost by more than $100, could be listed separately from the company's advertised rates.

On at least two other occasions, McCollum met with Bondi's staff to discuss two more clients — NJOY, an e-cigarette company, and HealthFair, which sells health screenings from mobile clinics.

McCollum isn't just Bondi's predecessor; he also leads the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has championed Bondi's advancement.

McCollum served as vice or acting chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based group from June 2012 to January 2014, records show. During that period it contributed $650,000 to Bondi's re-election campaign, more than 10 percent of what she raised, and chipped in another $16,000 in gifts so she could attend conferences with other Republican attorneys general.

When asked what role he had in those expenditures, McCollum said the staff, not the board, decides how campaign contributions are made. He didn't address the gifts.

McCollum and Bondi's deputy attorney general Patricia Conners said his access to her office has nothing to do with his connections.

"I'm not getting any special favors," McCollum said.

"He isn't treated any different," Conners said.

• • •

Tallahassee's revolving door between public service and private gain has long been a worry for advocates of transparent government. In fact, the state's Constitution bans Cabinet members — including the attorney general — from contacting their former agencies on behalf of clients for the first two years out of office.

McCollum, Florida's top law enforcement official from 2007 to 2010, said he waited until 2013 to discuss clients with Bondi's office.

"I told my clients that I didn't want anything to do with Florida during this period," McCollum said.

Yet once he did contact Bondi's office in 2013, McCollum didn't register himself or list his clients with the state, which is a requirement for anyone who lobbies the executive branch.

McCollum says that restriction — intended to ensure the public knows who is trying to influence public officials — doesn't apply to him.

"I was wearing my lawyer hat," McCollum said. "I'm representing a client on a legal matter. I'm not trying to influence the attorney general. I'm trying to represent my client. That's not lobbying."

But ethics and lobbying experts say being a lawyer, as many lobbyists are, doesn't exempt McCollum.

"We keep hearing this lawyer excuse, but it's just not valid," said Craig Holman, who lobbies for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit watchdog group. "Without a doubt, what he was doing was lobbying and he should have registered."

A batch of emails to and from Bondi's office recently obtained by the Times/Herald have raised questions about the completeness of the state's lobbying registries.

The emails show that numerous corporate lobbyists, including several from a Washington, D.C., law firm and two former attorneys general from other states, had lobbied Bondi's office despite not registering. At least four times, contacts from the firm Dickstein Shapiro came before her office, which decided to take no action against its clients.

An ethics complaint filed last month alleges Dickstein Shapiro violated the state's registration rule. If the Florida Commission on Ethics upholds the complaint, it can fine the firm up to $5,000 and ban it from lobbying in Florida for two years.

But as the emails show, it wasn't just out-of-town attorneys who weren't registering. They showed that McCollum was meeting with Bondi's staff to discuss his client.

"I am looking forward to seeing you tomorrow when I bring Royal Caribbean (general counsel) Brad Stein," McCollum wrote to one of Bondi's aides the day before the June 2013 meeting.

Because he hadn't registered and listed his clients, this is the only known public record showing McCollum was meeting with the executive branch to discuss Royal Caribbean.

• • •

Now specializing in public policy and regulation at Dentons, an international law firm, McCollum said companies that need to resolve issues before attorneys general make up a fraction of his business. He, like several other former attorneys general from other states, offers his firsthand knowledge of how states regulate corporate practices to help companies avoid legal pitfalls.

"Are we being remunerated for our knowledge and know-how?" he said. "Yes, we are, and I don't think that's inappropriate."

McCollum said he has registered to lobby in several other states, but maintains he is not required to do so in Florida.

Carol W. Lewis, professor emerita at the University of Connecticut and co-author of the 1991 book The Ethics Challenge in Public Service, said she didn't know why McCollum would be exempt from registering.

"It seems to me that by Florida's definition of lobbying, any attorney representing a client before an executive agency meets the very definition of lobbying," Lewis said.

The law defines lobbyists as those seeking to influence an agency's decision on policy or procurement, or who are trying to curry goodwill with an official.

McCollum said he was merely negotiating changes to an agreement involving Royal Caribbean, which he said is neither policy nor procurement. For his two other clients, he said he was only providing information and wasn't asking for anything.

In addition, he said he qualifies for one of the law's exemptions: lawyers who represent a client in a judicial or formal administrative proceeding don't need to register.

McCollum said that when he met with Bondi's staff to discuss Royal Caribbean, it was an "extension" of the administrative proceeding that produced the initial 1997 agreement.

"My meeting was all part of the same proceeding," McCollum said.

Holman said it's a stretch to claim that McCollum's meeting qualified as a "proceeding."

"Negotiating a contract from an executive branch agency is neither a judicial proceeding nor an administrative hearing," Holman said.

But Thomas Susman, a lobbyist for the American Bar Association in Washington, D.C., said McCollum's actions were limited to negotiating contracts, and so he didn't need to register.

Clients should have the right to have their lawyers negotiate contracts without full public disclosure, Susman said, and a registry might undermine the attorney-client confidentiality privilege.

"This is not covered by the language of the law, and shouldn't be," he said.

Holman said such a narrow reading defeats the purpose of having a lobbying registry.

"What the public needs to know, beyond general policy, is who is getting the contracts and negotiating the agreements," he said. "Representing paying clients to negotiate contracts or procurements services, as clearly stated in Florida, constitutes lobbying."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler.

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