Ten months after getting a special referral from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's top aide, a Republican-affiliated Fort Lauderdale law firm wrote its first big check to the Florida Democratic Party.
Sink says the two events are unrelated and that the special treatment her chief of staff provided the law firm was little more than what he had done for several other firms seeking to represent the state's pension fund in securities lawsuits. But the Democratic candidate for governor, who is casting herself as a reformer, needs to be more careful about the appearance of impropriety.
Sink's chief of staff, Jim Cassady, went too far in November 2008 when he wrote Ash Williams, the executive director of the State Board of Administration. Cassady wrote at the behest of Gary Farmer, who wanted to pursue a class-action securities fraud lawsuit for the SBA. Farmer was a partner in the since-shuttered law firm Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, founded by Scott Rothstein, who is under indictment for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme. In one electronic message, Cassady told Williams: "We have received similar inquiries from other firms, but we know this firm.''
As St. Petersburg Times' Sydney Freedberg and Connie Humburg reported, 10 months later, the law firm wrote its first check to the Florida Democratic Party, worth $200,000. Rothstein held a fundraiser for Sink's gubernatorial campaign and endorsed her. In the previous four years, the firm had contributed roughly $650,000 to the state Republican Party and its candidates but nothing to the state Democratic Party.
Sink denies there was any pay-to-play. Rothstein's firm received nothing more than it would have gotten had it just called the SBA directly: It was placed on a list of dozens of firms who were notified once the SBA finally solicited bids for legal services in October. And Cassady, who now is moving to Sink's campaign staff, acknowledges he used a poor choice of words in his e-mail. He said he wasn't trying to imply Williams should hire the firm, just that he knew Farmer from when he lived in Fort Lauderdale.
It will never be known if the Rothstein firm hoped to elicit more help from Sink's shop during the SBA selection process in return for political contributions. The deadline for bids came after the firm's founder was under investigation by the federal government. Rothstein has since been indicted on charges of fraud and racketeering. Sink's campaign already returned $6,500 of Rothstein-related contributions and is in the process of returning more than $10,000. The Democratic Party returned the $200,000 check. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has said he plans to return more than $85,000 in contributions to his U.S. Senate campaign linked to the Rothstein firm.
Sink said the episode occurred during a period when she was the lone SBA trustee pushing to file litigation to recoup investment losses, making her a magnet for law firms' inquiries. Cassady forwarded the information to the SBA, but he should have done no more or no less for each firm. By showing favoritism to one firm, no matter the ultimate impact, Sink's office has opened itself to scrutiny that won't soon fade.