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Legal relationship not a conflict, most say

When Dale Renbjor recently read that City Attorney Tom Trask was representing Oldsmar City Council member Marcelo Caruso in his divorce, he paused for a moment.

Was this a conflict of interest, wondered Renbjor, a former council candidate. After all, the city attorney gives the county legal advice on the public's business. Should he also represent the elected officials who are his bosses on personal matters?

"Upon further reflection . . . I didn't see it as a conflict," said Renbjor, who describes himself as a "conscientious observer" of the current council and has been a vocal critic on some issues.

For the most part, people inside and outside Oldsmar agree with that conclusion.

Legal experts cite Florida Bar rules, which allow what Trask is doing "as long as there is not any conflict within the substance of the representation," said Stetson University law professor Bobbi Flowers, a former federal prosecutor.

That's also how Trask sees it. Caruso's divorce, he said, "can't be any further apart" from city business.

"I can tell you that no, it's not a conflict of interest because his personal actions have nothing to do with my representation of the city," Trask said. "I wouldn't take on representation of a council member if it's in direct conflict with the city's interest."

Most current and former council members said they had no problem with Trask's work for Caruso.

But one elected official, council member David Tilki, said in response to a question from the St. Petersburg Times that he didn't think it was a good idea for Trask to represent the council on personal matters even if it wasn't a conflict of interest.

"I just think that it's proper that if there could be an appearance of a conflict, then it should be avoided, even though it may not be," said Tilki, who has not made an issue of the arrangement.

Others point out that even though Trask is the city attorney, he is not a full-time city employee. Trask is an attorney in the Dunedin firm of Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt & Trask and is classified as an "independent contractor of the city, and not an employee," according to his contract with Oldsmar. The city pays Trask a $3,500 monthly retainer and $90 an hour for legal work he does for the city.

But that does not keep Trask from representing other clients, said former Mayor Jeff Sandler.

"Just because he agreed to be a city attorney, doesn't mean he agrees to give up making a living," said Sandler, an attorney. "He's just another lawyer and ultimately, (Caruso) is just another client."

It only seems natural, Mayor Jerry Beverland said, for council members to seek legal help from Trask on personal matters because they already know and trust him.

"If I ever needed anybody, he'd be the first one I'd talk to," Beverland said.

Beverland also said that Trask would not let the fact that he is representing a council member on a personal level cloud his duty as the city's legal adviser. In fact, Beverland pointed to a recent council meeting when Trask raised questions about a proposal that Caruso was pushing.

Earlier this month, Caruso tried to get the city to pay for the health insurance of council members, a $200 monthly benefit that is given to full-time employees of Oldsmar. The proposal seemed to be headed for approval until Trask started asking some technical questions about it.

That's when Beverland decided to give city staffers more time to research it. Caruso's proposal was altered by Beverland at a meeting last week to allow council members to buy into the city's health insurance plan.

"Basically because of what (Trask) said I decided to postpone it," Beverland said. "I could tell that (Trask) was not in favor of it."

Attorneys are taught in law school and during their legal practice to keep cases and clients separate, said Trask's law partner John Hubbard, who is the city attorney of Tarpon Springs and Dunedin. It's easy to do that with Caruso's divorce and city business since the two have nothing to do with each other.

"A good lawyer can separate those out, and Tom's a good lawyer," Hubbard said. "The matters themselves are so distinct and separate from each other so there's just no ability to intermingle those two relationships. That's why it's not a conflict."

It would be difficult to say how common a practice it is for municipal attorneys to represent city officials on personal matters, said John C. Randolph, a West Palm Beach attorney who is president of the Florida Municipal Attorneys Association.

"It does seem like a natural thing, particularly in smaller cities," Randolph said. "If it's completely independent of city business, I don't see the conflict."

That's seems to be how the Florida Bar views things also.

"For there to be conflict, there has to be adversity," said Arne Vanstrum, assistant ethics council with the Florida Bar. "So you have to represent a position that is adverse with your clients. If it's unrelated, from a legal ethical standpoint, it's not a problem."

_ Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quiocosptimes.com.

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