Florida’s new attorney general: We’re ‘upping our game’ on fraud

Ashley Moody says she wants to tackle fraud and the opioid epidemic, but without the stain of partisanship.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. (BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times)
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
Published Jan. 21, 2019|Updated Jan. 21, 2019

Florida’s new attorney general has barely been on the job two weeks, but she’s already reached a conclusion: “Like it or not, we’re going to have to start upping our game."

In one of her first interviews since taking office, Ashley Moody pledged to get better at going after people and corporations defrauding Floridians, vowed to take the lead on the state’s opioid epidemic, and said she wanted to do it without the stain of partisanship that has blemished other attorneys general across the country.

“I think there’s a tendency these days, for whatever reason, to view every action or decision through a partisan lens,” she said.

One of her battles over the next four years, however, will be shaking off accusations that she’s “Pam Bondi 2.0.” During two terms in office, Bondi courted controversy in national television appearances, through opposition to gay marriage and work with partisan groups such as the Republican Attorneys General Association.

Already, Moody, 43, has cast a different tone. She hasn’t been on Fox News. (She laughs that she hasn’t been invited on.) And she hasn’t been dominating the headlines.

Compare that to Bondi, who in her first few weeks had given multiple press conferences, penned op-eds and appeared on Fox News.

Moody, who spent 10 years as a Hillsborough circuit judge before running for attorney general, has been meeting with her office’s lawyers and identifying some of their top concerns. Among them is fraud, particularly against the elderly.

It’s a trend that’s been rising, and Florida leads the nation, she said. The state is also second in cases of identity theft. She said she’s looking at new ways to analyze cases and stop them.

And it doesn’t just mean locking up individuals sitting behind a computer, she said.

“It could also be corporations taking advantage of consumers,” she said.

Since the election, consumer advocates have been hopeful that Moody will go after corporations as hard as she goes after criminal prosecutions.

Alice Vickers, director of the Alliance for Consumer Protection, a consumer advocacy group, is “guardedly optimistic,” citing Moody’s background in legal aid to the poor. Moody was honored by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 for her pro bono work, and Moody’s mother works for Bay Area Legal Services, which provides legal help to the indigent.

To tackle fraud, Moody is touting two new hires with experience on both sides of corporate malfeasance. She named Tampa lawyer John Guard as her chief deputy and Richard Martin, another Tampa lawyer, as her general counsel.

“A lot of times, people will bring in campaign, political people to help run a front office," she said. "The guys that I hired and brought in had never been involved in politics, but they’re good, smart, top-of-their-class, respected lawyers.”

Like Bondi, Moody is vowing to take the lead on the opioid epidemic. She’s asked a group of people to meet and come up with ways to tackle the crisis.

“My biggest fear is that we’ve declared it an epidemic, both federally and in the state, which triggers resources, but how are we using those resources to make sure we’re getting an effective return when they go out to these communities?” she said. “Because we don’t have a coordinated plan or strategy or coordinated effort.”

One of the problems, advocates have said, is that the state lacks a central point person to lead the fight. Former Gov. Rick Scott eliminated the drug czar’s office in 2011.

Moody stopped short of calling for the office to be reinstated, but said someone should be coordinating efforts, and it could be her office.

“If somebody says ‘That will work,’ and our group says ‘That will work, it’s worked in other states and needs to be brought back,’ I’ll be the first to line up to support it,” she said.

One of the members of Moody’s opioid panel, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, praised her for continuing the fight on opioids. He said he will advise bringing back the drug czar.

“You have a weak office at the federal level, and a nonexistent office on the state level,” Aronberg said.

Moody says she hopes over the next four years that Floridians will see that her decisions are based not on politics, but the rule of law.

That’s a sentiment that Martha Barnett, a Tallahassee lawyer and staunch Democrat who has known Moody most of her life, believes will happen. Barnett said that despite differing with Moody on some political issues, she’s never doubted Moody’s integrity.

“I don’t think she will politicize this office,” Barnett said. “By and large, most (Florida attorneys general) rise above the politics to the policies and responsibilities that come with the office. I think Ashley Moody will carry on that tradition.”