Monday, September 24, 2018
Politics

Pam Bondi, with Republican attorney general coalition, involves herself in faraway court fights

TALLAHASSEE — Earlier this year, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi opposed a ban on certain kinds of semiautomatic weapons.

In Connecticut.

The ban was that state's response to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Bondi and 21 other attorneys general, most of them Republican, filed a brief that argued the ban was unconstitutional.

Bondi's office didn't explain the brief. No news conferences. No news release. Nor did she draw attention to signing briefs challenging other gun measures, including a similar ban on semiautomatic weapons in New York, a federal ban on "straw" purchases of guns and a federal law restricting handgun purchases for people ages 18 to 21.

She signed all of these briefs with colleagues from southern and western states that dominate the Republican Attorneys General Association, a political fundraising organization known as RAGA that has contributed $750,000 to Bondi's $5.5 million re-election campaign.

Since taking office in 2011, Bondi has adopted RAGA's priorities, recited talking points and joined members' legal battles far beyond Florida.

"Why would we lift or ease the ban on straw buyers?" said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri when told about Bondi's position. "Straw buyers are purchasing guns for someone who is either ineligible or is trying to hide the fact that they now have a gun. They reek of impropriety."

In her bid for re-election, Bondi has focused on a get-tough-on-crime message and her record as a staunch defender of victims' and states' rights. But none of these "friend-of-the-court" briefs support that or appear to respond to pressing situations in Florida.

"Attorneys general are supposed to work to protect the laws and safety of residents of their state," said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence's legal action project. "How can she contend that the people of Florida are made more safe if there are more assault weapons in Connecticut?"

Bondi's office refused to answer whether she consulted with law enforcement before signing the briefs or how they would make Floridians safer.

Her only comments were made in a short email sent by her spokeswoman: "I'm proud to be among a bipartisan group of state attorneys general who consistently advocate against government infringement of Americans' Second Amendment rights."

Guns aren't the only topic covered in numerous other briefs, many seemingly unrelated to Florida, that reflect how much big money is expanding the scope of attorney general offices across the country. Since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, super PACs like RAGA and its Democratic counterpart, DAGA, can raise unlimited cash from corporations and unions. In passing contributions along to candidates, the groups are further politicizing an office that had been removed from overt partisanship.

"It never crossed the mind of the Supreme Court how Citizens would affect elected prosecutors," said James Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School. "That's one of the worse aspects of that decision. We're just now seeing the impact."

• • •

The Republican National Committee and several Republican attorneys general, including John Cornyn, who later became a U.S. senator from Texas, formed RAGA in 1999 in reaction to a flurry of class action lawsuits against corporations filed by Democratic attorneys general. The most high-profile case was the massive $200 billion settlement with the nation's largest tobacco companies.

The cases revealed how powerful attorneys general had become. For groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they also showed how few Republicans held the office.

RAGA's priority from Day 1: Elect Republicans. Fourteen Republicans had the job when the group formed. Now it's 25.

Almost immediately, however, the group's formation raised concerns. At the National Attorneys General Association's 1999 annual meeting, Arkansas' Democratic attorney general warned that the new association wasn't proper.

"We are the attorneys for our respective states, not hacks for our political parties," Mark Pryor told members. "The primary nature of the office we hold is legal, not political."

Three years later, a Senate Judiciary Committee report found that RAGA was raising campaign contributions from large companies, including banks, tobacco and firearms, while they were defendants in multistate legal actions.

That conflict made news, but it was too late to go back. Faced with a growing competitive disadvantage, Democrats created DAGA that same year.

A DAGA consultant told the New York Times in 2003 that the Democrats would disband their new group if Republicans did away with theirs. Neither did.

In subsequent years, RAGA's dominance grew. Through September, the group has raised $11.7 million — four times as much as DAGA.

Compounding the inequity is a national agreement that neither group contribute to challengers in states with an incumbent. So that means that while Bondi has received $750,000 from RAGA, her Democratic opponent, George Sheldon, hasn't gotten a nickel from DAGA.

Many of RAGA's biggest donors have a stake in who wins. The National Rifle Association, the plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to eliminate a federal ban on the sale of handguns for buyers between 18 and 21 years old, gave $75,000 this year. That ban was upheld, but Bondi and 20 other attorneys general, all but two Republican, had signed a brief in support of the NRA lawsuit. Tobacco company Altria gave $166,000 and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave $2.3 million. Boeing contributed $25,000 after Bondi and 15 other RAGA members signed a brief protesting a National Labor Review Board lawsuit charging that the aerospace giant violated federal labor law — in South Carolina.

• • •

RAGA is run by an eight-member attorney general executive committee, including Bondi, and a small policy staff in Washington, D.C. They promote a variety of issues, including opposition to gay marriage, medical marijuana and the "federal overreach" of the Environmental Protection Agency, a view that has inspired a number of briefs against federal attempts to limit pollution from coal-powered utilities and agribusinesses.

Bondi, 48, is the only female Republican attorney general, and the group's website prominently features photos and videos of her.

Not known for having a particularly strong ideology before running for office, Bondi has been receptive to RAGA's influence, becoming one of its more active members. Since 2011, she has received $25,000 in gifts in the form of travel expenses to attend 14 of its conferences.

She says she uses the group to compare notes and discuss ideas. It has helped her grow close to counterparts in other states.

"We campaigned together," she said. "That's how we got to know each other. I talk to some of their wives as much as I talk to them."

At the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Bondi shared her prime-time speaking slot with fellow RAGA member Sam Olens, of Georgia. She invited RAGA chairman Alan Wilson, of South Carolina, that year to a celebration of her engagement to Tampa ophthalmologist Greg Henderson.

Bondi and her cohorts stress many of the same issues: pill mills, human trafficking, federal overreach. They backed Bondi's opposition to the Affordable Care Act by helping pay the state's initial litigation costs of $250,000.

"They bonded over the lawsuit," said Bondi's predecessor, Republican Bill McCollum, who had filed the suit against the federal government in 2010. "It's become a really great network for her that provides her resources and ideas."

• • •

On Aug. 9, 2013, a RAGA staffer sent an email asking GOP attorneys general to support a letter by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

He was protesting "navigators," who were hired to help the uninsured sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. His seven-page letter argued that navigators weren't required to have criminal background checks or be fingerprinted, something he said could lead to identity thefts.

"This letter looks good to me, I recommend we join," Carlos Muniz, then Bondi's chief of staff, said in an email. "Ok to proceed?"

"Yes!!!" Bondi replied in an email. She signed the letter the next day.

A week later, during a Florida Cabinet meeting Bondi attended, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said state lawmakers "sealed the gaps" in the federal program by passing a law earlier in the year. Navigators would have to be fingerprinted and registered under the new state requirements.

Twice during McCarty's presentation, Bondi asked rhetorically if navigators were going to be fingerprinted.

"I don't want a convicted felon collecting our citizens' personal information," Bondi said.

Her staff subsequently reminded her of the state's new law in a series of talking points for appearances on Fox News.

The first of 10 talking points Bondi received in an Aug. 28 email from staff stated that lawmakers passed a law requiring navigators in Florida be registered — "showing that this is an issue Florida takes seriously."

But Bondi made no mention of the steps Florida took when she appeared three weeks later on Fox & Friends. Instead, she repeated Morrisey's points.

"Now we have navigators coming into our state and they're not doing background checks, they're not doing fingerprints," Bondi told the hosts.

When the Times/Herald asked Bondi's office at the time why she misstated Florida's law, Muniz said her comments were about the federal government, not Florida.

But that's not what Bondi said in her Fox & Friends appearance, which can still be viewed on RAGA's former website: rslc.gop/tags/raga.

• • •

Bondi's office rarely publicizes the briefs she signs. At least 10 times, Bondi took sides outside Florida without providing explanation. She disputed federal law at least four other times without explaining why it matters in Florida.

When asked why Bondi supported an assortment of remote causes — Arizona's hard-line immigration law, expansion of the Keystone oil pipeline, a Boeing labor dispute in South Carolina — her spokeswoman said each case has broader implications for Florida.

"An attorney general's participation in amicus briefs is important because the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts routinely establish legal precedents that influence both the policy choices available to Florida policy makers and the individual rights enjoyed by Floridians, even when our state is not directly involved in the case," Jennifer Meale wrote in an email.

But neither Bondi nor Meale explained why any case specifically matters to Florida.

When Bondi supported Arizona's strict immigration law, some of which was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, she said she did so because of states' rights. Bondi's office won't say if Bondi herself supports the law, which requires officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally and, before it was struck down, included other measures like criminal penalties for illegal immigrants seeking work.

No news releases were issued telling Floridians that Bondi was opposing separate semiautomatic weapon bans in Connecticut and New York, and federal bans on straw buyers and gun sales to people ages 18 to 21.

The Brady Center's Lowy said the briefs he's reviewed have no connection to Florida.

"This is another example of politicians putting fealty to the gun lobby ahead of public safety," he said.

Meale insists Bondi's endorsements were not influenced by outside groups like RAGA.

"The only consideration Attorney General Bondi gives to matters before her office, including decisions on whether to participate in amicus briefs, is what is best for Floridians," Meale wrote.

But it's also not clear how Floridians benefit from Bondi's opposition to a cleanup of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, about 750 miles away. For decades, pollution from fertilizer runoff has caused massive fish kills and algae blooms there.

Not one state adjacent to the water body objects to a plan now under way to clean it up, and most are contributing help. But large agribusiness lobbying groups, such as the American Farm Bureau and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, oppose the effort.

Bondi sided with those lobbying groups but only says it's because she's against the federal government's "overreach."

For those who have spent years trying to clean up Chesapeake Bay, the intervention by Bondi and 17 other Republican attorneys general from states such as Alaska and Montana, is inexplicable.

"The irony is that these attorneys general from the outside don't want us to clean up our back yard because they don't want a precedent set where they'd be forced to clean up theirs," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It saddens us that we're getting this interference, especially from attorneys general that aren't even close to the problem we're trying to fix."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at [email protected] Follow @mikevansickler.

     
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