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Chris Hoyer spent his law career, both public and private, going after bad guys

'We’re gonna knock 'em dead,’ he once said, and his firm delivered
Chris Hoyer, at the podium, with FBI agents Al Scudieri, Marvin Rudnick and Phil McNiff in 1980 after the Florida Power case. Mr. Hoyer grew up in Metuchen, N.J., and got his law degree from the University of Florida in 1973. (Image courtesy Angie Moreschi, James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm)
Published May 6

Chris Hoyer and Al Scudieri sat in an unmarked Buick, listening. Inside the Hilton on Tampa’s North Lois Avenue, a former bank president was in a meeting and wearing a small transmitter.

A German man said he knew someone at the Department of Justice and promised to fix a pending fraud case. It would cost the bank president $60,000.

“Let me go out and make a phone call,” the German said.

Mr. Hoyer, a federal prosecutor, and Scudieri, an FBI agent, heard the man return minutes later.

“OK, everything’s fixed,” he said. “I just spoke to Hoyer, and he’s going to play ball.”

From the passenger seat, Mr. Hoyer looked over at Scudieri and smiled.

“Hmm... he’s going to play ball with me,” Scudieri remembers Mr. Hoyer saying. “And then he said, ‘I guess Leavenworth must have a baseball team.’ ”

Chris Hoyer, a prosecutor and lawyer who spent his career fighting crime and corruption in Tampa Bay, died April 27 of a heart attack. He was 74.

From the Tampa Tribune, July 14, 1984

Mr. Hoyer made it to Hollywood through his work with undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone, whose story was told in the 1997 Johnny Depp film Donnie Brasco. But Mr. Hoyer’s impact on the Tampa Bay area was much bigger.

He went after mobsters and corrupt politicians, bankers and businessmen. He worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, on the Justice Department’s Strike Force on Organized Crime, as deputy state’s attorney, and later, in private practice, fighting civil fraud for taxpayers and consumers.

“He spent his entire life pursuing bad guys,” said Terry Smiljanich, who met Mr. Hoyer when they clerked for the same federal judge in Tampa. Smiljanich is now retired from the James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm.

"In his work, he was very serious," said retired lawyer Terry Smiljanich. "But out of court, he was kind of a crazy guy, and I mean that in a good sense. He always made you laugh." (Image courtesy Angie Moreschi, James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm)

Scudieri, the FBI agent, met Mr. Hoyer in the late 1970s, when the young prosecutor came by the FBI’s Tampa office.

“He said, ‘I need a couple of good agents to work on what could be a really big case,’ ” Scudieri remembers.

This was just after the first Middle East oil embargo. Gas station lines stretched long, and electric bills soared. Congress passed a law that put a 10% cap on crude oil profit.

“These five oil barons in Houston got together and figured out a plan to create five dummy companies,” Scudieri said.

They’d sell the oil back and forth between them, getting around the new law and making a 50% profit.

“But they needed markets to sell at the inflated price.”

So they went to the president of Florida Power and offered to cut him in on the deal. He accepted. St. Petersburg Times reporters started investigating the rise in prices, Scudieri said, and one obtained income figures and bonuses and saw something wasn’t right.

Scudieri and Mr. Hoyer started an investigation and eventually went back and forth to Jacksonville for six months trying the case. Nearly everyone involved was convicted, Scudieri said.

Mr. Hoyer established his reputation as a risk-taker, Scudieri said. He wasn’t afraid of complex and time-consuming investigations.

From Al Scudieri’s newspaper clipping of the Florida Power case. The case’s codename was "power chain." (Image courtesy Angie Moreschi, James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm)

In the 1980s, Hillsborough County had a five-person county commission of three men and two women.

“The men were forever making the wrong decisions,” Scudieri said, “and the women were forever complaining about it to the newspapers and the FBI.”

One day, an engineer put in a request to develop land in northwestern Hillsborough County and got turned down. After the meeting, one of the commissioners told him he’d done the whole thing wrong. The engineer had to go to the men first. And it would cost him $75,000.

That engineer called a former FBI agent, who called Scudieri, who called Mr. Hoyer. Together, they wired the engineer and sent him in with the money.

About 20 minutes after each of the men were paid, FBI agents went in, said they were conducting an investigation on the first commissioner and asked if they knew anything.

“They said no,” Scudieri said. “Then we arrested them.”

Coverage of the 1983 arrest of county commissioners. (Image courtesy Angie Moreschi, James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm)

After eight years as chief assistant at the State Attorney’s office, the blue wave that brought Bill Clinton into the White House swept Mr. Hoyer, his wife, prosecutor Judy Hoyer and State Attorney Bill James out of office.

So they started their own firm.

The mission - outlined by Mr. Hoyer - was “to help people and help the government recover money that was taken from them through fraud,” Scudieri said. “He said, ‘we’re gonna knock 'em dead.’ And we did.”

In the last 20 years, Scudieri figures the James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm recovered hundreds of millions for clients, the national government and state governments.

The case that embodied the work they’d go on to pursue came shortly after the firm opened, said former St. Petersburg Times reporter turned lawyer Larry Dougherty. He left the Times in 2000 to join Mr. Hoyer’s firm as an investigator.

From the St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 2, 1993

MetLife was selling life insurance policies disguised as retirement policies to nurses. The case ultimately brought in $20 million in fines and $76 million in restitution to customers, and regulation to the insurance industry.

“I don’t know a lot of lawyers who made such a successful transition from public service to private practice,” said Dougherty, now a business litigator at Foley & Lardner.

Mr. Hoyer “only wanted to pursue things where bad people were getting away with bad things,” Smiljanich said, “and that’s what he spent his whole life doing.”

The firm Mr. Hoyer helped start became a family affair, and it’s now run by one of his three children, daughter Jesse Hoyer. (Image courtesy Angie Moreschi, James Hoyer Investigative Law Firm)

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Mr. Hoyer? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see how his colleagues will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

Read recent Epilogues:

Bernie Herman thought laughter could heal, so he went to clown school

The Rev. Esther Gonzalez shared the good word any way she could

Jim Igler was always near the water or under it, cleaning, teaching, helping


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