For three years, Reps. Vernon Peeples and Mary Figg have pushed legislation to cut what they regard as exorbitant attorney fees in right-of-way cases.
Now, the lawyers who make millions on such cases have targeted the two legislators for defeat. Lawyers who practice in the lucrative eminent domain field have given thousands of dollars to the opponents of Peeples and Figg.
The lawyers, several of whom have received more than $1-million in taxpayers' money for defending landowners in right-of-way cases, say all they're after is a fair hearing from legislators.
"Many of the members (of the eminent domain bar) felt we had been kind of shortcut in the proceedings initiated by Rep. Peeples," said Charles Roy Forman, an Ocala lawyer.
Counting donations from his family and his firm, Forman is responsible for giving $7,500 to the opponents of Peeples and Figg. "I was concerned about being cut out of the process and why he had a grudge against the industry and attorneys in particular."
Peeples, a Punta Gorda Democrat seeking his sixth term, is opposed by Veronica Kirschner, a Republican from Arcadia. Figg, a Lutz Democrat, is trying to unseat Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa.
Peeples said the lawyers are trying to protect their high fees, not property rights.
"I listened to everyone who wanted to talk," he said. "We had numerous hearings. They were there and they testified. (The bill) protected property rights. It didn't protect the gravy train for eminent domain attorneys. The reform bill still would have provided upfront attorney fees and also other costs for preparing one's case."
Peeples said it appears the lawyers hope to block any reform.
"Obviously, the richness of the system is such that they're not willing to accept any reasonable compromise," he said. "They want to continue the exorbitant fees at the expense of taxpayers."
The Legislature has struggled for years with a way to bring down the spiraling cost of right of way for highway projects. In heavily developed urban areas, those costs exceed the cost of the highway construction. The expensive process of acquiring the land _ not the land itself _ is what has driven the cost skyward, critics say.
The state's eminent domain law forces taxpayers to pick up the cost of landowners' attorneys, appraisers and expert witnesses as the case winds through court. Those costs are paid whether or not the landowner wins at trial.
A reform bill passed in 1990, but Peeples said it did not cut attorney fees. During the past session, Peeples filed a bill that would have substantially cut attorney fees when property owners take right-of-way cases to court and end up with a verdict that's no higher than the one the state offered before trial. The legislation was killed in the last days of the session.
Kirschner said she thinks Peeples' proposal would have interfered "with the right of the common people to protect their land."
The right-of-way lawyers gave her campaign $4,750, more than a quarter of the total she has raised. The money came from lawyers outside her district, in Miami and Ocala, and from Forman's relatives in South Florida. Forman said his family is interested in the eminent domain law because they have owned property condemned for roads.
"I've spoken to a lot of people outside the district," she said. "There were some people who were interested in this issue."
Sen. Grant said he did not solicit money from the eminent domain bar, which has given his campaign $8,000.
"I haven't made any commitment at all as to future legislation," he said.
Tobacco interests, Grant said, have given Figg money because he sponsored legislation to crack down on cigarette sales to minors. "When you stand up on a particular issue, you make friends and you make enemies," he said.
The state's top eminent domain lawyers say there is nothing wrong with the current law. Legislators trying to make changes always trot out a list of a few abuses where attorneys got large fees, said Toby Brigham, whose firm has 21 lawyers in five offices specializing in condemnation cases. Those aren't representative of the whole, he said.
"The fees that I have received have either been agreed to be reasonable by the condemning authority or adjudicated by the court to be reasonable," Brigham said.
If attorneys fees paid by taxpayers are high, that's the cost that must be paid to make sure property owners' rights under the Constitution are protected, the lawyers say.
"The property owner is protected," Figg said. "It's the taxpayers that are unprotected from the eminent domain attorneys who are taking advantage of a very liberal system."
The million-dollar club
Several lawyers who have earned more than $1-million from the Department of Transportation since January 1988 have contributed to John Grant or Veronica Kirschner. They are the candidates opposing Mary Figg and Vernon Peeples, two legislators who have worked to curtail attorney fees in DOT cases.
from DOT since Contributions to
Lawyer January 1988 Grant Kirschner
S. Cary Gaylord $1,255,660 $2,000+ $500
Charles Roy Forman $1,195,977 $3,500+ $4,000+
Toby Prince Brigham $1,014,531 $500 None
James A. Helinger $1,216,825 $500 None
Andrew Schuster $1,057,175 $500 None
+ Includes primary election cycles and money from the attorney's family members, law partners and law firms.