TALLAHASSEE — Four days after being elected Florida's next attorney general, Pam Bondi and her fiance flew to Las Vegas to party with one of the state's most influential trial lawyers, Tampa's Jim Wilkes.
It was Wilkes' 60th birthday and, while Bondi and her fiance, Greg Henderson, say they paid for their hotel room and airfare to Las Vegas, they relied on the Republican Party of Florida to charter a plane to get them from Las Vegas to New Orleans, where she attended a meeting of the Republican Attorneys General Association the next day.
Wilkes, who has made a living suing nursing homes on behalf of Medicaid and Medicare clients who have died or been injured because of negligent care, said he has known Bondi since she first began as a prosecutor in Hillsborough County. He sees no conflict with his close association with her.
Bondi, who defeated Democrat Dan Gelber in the attorney general's race Nov. 2, generally supports the efforts of her Republican colleagues in the Legislature to limit lawsuits against Medicaid providers in an effort to curb costs.
Wilkes said, however, if legislators go too far in curbing access to the courts, the issue will be challenged. The office that must defend against that challenge is the attorney general.
"Am I nervous, yes," said Wilkes. "Am I nervous that we have a Republican governor and a House and Senate who want to strip people's rights? Yes. But what's the attorney general going to do about it?"
Wilkes said that his birthday party is an annual event and his wife, Melania, has a closer relationship with Bondi than he does. "They talk about makeup and things like that," he said, noting that he is close to Bondi's fiance, Henderson, an ophthalmologist.
"I have told her in the past that I think long-term care is rife with fraud," he said. "Do I have a special relationship with her? No."
Bondi, a longtime friend of Wilkes' wife, sees no conflict, said Brett Doster, Bondi's campaign manager. "Pam and Jim's wife have known each other 20-some-odd years and there's never been any secret about it," he said.
Bondi could not be reached for comment. Her spokeswoman, Kim Kirtley, said that her close association with Wilkes won't interfere with her ability to do her job, even if it means defending legislation that could affect Wilkes' profession.
"Pam is absolutely going to defend the laws that are passed by the Legislature," Kirtley said. "Her loyalties are going to lie with the law and what is the right thing to do and not who her friends are. Pam Bondi is going to side with what is right and the people of Florida."
Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos has said that one of the first priorities of lawmakers during next spring's legislative session will be to find a way to limit lawsuits against doctors and hospitals that provide Medicaid.
"Right now it's too easy for a Medicaid client to sue a doctor," Haridopolos said last week. He said he will support giving doctors limited liability, such as the sovereign immunity governments now enjoy.
Wilkes is prepared for a fight. "Florida's Constitution has a specific access to the courts provision," he said. "If the Legislature and executive branch decide to eliminate access to courts, the Supreme Court is going to speak up."
Wilkes and his wife are registered Democrats, but his firm, Wilkes & McHugh, gave $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $25,000 to the Florida Democrats.
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.