As Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged an aggressive war on what he considers “woke” culture, his ideas have come under fierce legal fire, with more than 15 lawsuits challenging his policies.
Four private law firms — each with deep connections to Republican Party politics — have been hired to defend the state, and the cost to Florida taxpayers is at least $16.7 million, according to a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald review of state financial transactions.
The firm that has raked in the most money — $5.9 million — is the boutique Washington, D.C. law firm of Cooper & Kirk. When Florida retained the firm in 2019, one of its top lawyers was Adam Laxalt, a Republican former Nevada attorney general who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate this year. Laxalt was DeSantis’ roommate during training at the Naval Training School in 2005 and the governor endorsed and raised money for Laxalt’s failed Senate campaign.
The Cooper & Kirk firm is a favorite among D.C. conservatives. It represented U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, during his 2016 campaign for Missouri attorney general and previously employed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas.
The firm’s co-founder, Charles Cooper, represented Florida before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in its felons voting case and in the state’s defense of its Stop W.O.K.E Act, which prohibits public schools and universities from enabling frank discussions about the nation’s racial history in classrooms. Cooper also represented former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department’s investigations into Russian election interference.
The amount the state gave to the law firm started small. In 2019, the DeSantis administration signed a contract to pay Cooper & Kirk $250,000 to defend the state law that severely undercut Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018 that overturned the state’s lifetime ban on voting for nearly all people convicted of felonies. By the time the case was completed in December 2020, Florida taxpayers had given the law firm $475,000, records show.
In 2021, the DeSantis administration paid the Cooper & Kirk law firm another $800,000, this time to defend the Florida Department of Health’s ban on cruise ship COVID-19 “vaccine passport” requirements. The state paid $3 million for the firm to also defend the Department of Management Services, which was tasked with enforcing the controversial social media law that was successfully challenged by Big Tech companies.
The firm with the next largest book of business defending the governor’s culture war policies is GrayRobinson, which has been paid a total of $5.2 million for work defending DeSantis policies, state records show.
The Florida-based firm has 14 offices in Florida and one in Washington, D.C. It has a long history of current and former Florida elected officials among its high-ranking staff.
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The firm’s lawyers, George Levesque and Jeff Aaron, lead the governor’s defense in the First Amendment case brought against the state by suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom DeSantis ousted because Warren signed a pledge not to enforce Florida’s new 15-week abortion restriction. According to purchase orders registered with the state, the firm has been paid $1.7 million to date for the Warren case. Next month, they will head to trial defending the state law requiring viewpoint surveys on college campuses.
A Washington, D.C. firm with a specialty in election law, Holzman Vogel LLC, has been paid $3.9 million to defend the DeSantis administration’s election laws. The firm’s founder and managing partner is Jill Holtzman Vogel, a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee who now serves in the Virginia State Senate. Recently, the firm opened a Tallahassee office and hired DeSantis’ former deputy general counsel Josh Pratt.
The bulk of the money to Holzman Vogel went to defending the secretary of state’s office against challenges to the state’s 2020 election reform law that restricted vote-by-mail and third-party voter registration. The firm is also defending the governor’s office in the redistricting challenge. The original contract for $165,000 has had total payments of $625,000 to date, state records show.
Holland & Knight, a Florida-based firm where DeSantis once had a job as a civil litigator attorney, was paid $1.7 million in 2019 and 2020 to represent the state in the felons voting lawsuit and to defend the Department of State in a lawsuit attempting to force the state to modify elections regulations to address health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeSantis has also used the state business to exert leverage over the firms. In April 2020, after the Miami Herald’s lawyer at Holland & Knight sent a demand letter in advance of filing a public records lawsuit that would force the state to divulge the names of all elder-care facilities that have had a positive test for the coronavirus, the governor’s general counsel Joe Jacquot made a phone call to Holland & Knight partner George Meros.
After the call, Meros told his colleague Sanford Bohrer, who was directly representing the Herald, to abandon the lawsuit. Bohrer did, but told the paper. Bohrer, who has since retired, told Law.com this year that he “was told to stand down. I said OK, but I’m telling the Herald why. My guess is the firm was trying to get in, or stay in, the good graces of the governor.”
George Meros left Holland & Knight in August 2020 and now is a partner in the Tallahassee office of Shutts & Bowen. His son, Nick Meros, is currently DeSantis’s deputy general counsel. Since Meros left Holland & Knight, the firm has not handled any new work defending the DeSantis administration but Shutts & Bowen, which has long defended the state in several pending lawsuits, particularly as it relates to medical marijuana, has been paid $685,000 to defend the governor’s new policies, state records show.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct a reference to Ron DeSantis’ work for Holland & Knight. He was a civil litigator during his time with the firm.
This story was also corrected to reflect where DeSantis and Adam Laxalt were roommates. It was at the Naval Training School.