TALLAHASSEE — Pam Bondi would bring personal loyalty to Donald Trump’s future administration — and political baggage, too.
Her meeting today with the president-elect at Trump Tower, ostensibly to discuss a high-level federal post, is the latest milepost in her stunning rise from local Tampa prosecutor to state attorney general to possible White House insider.
Six years ago, Bondi told a campaign rally of tea party activists at a park in St. Augustine what kind of an attorney general she would be.
"I am running to be your chief legal officer," Bondi said. "To protect you. To protect our children. To protect our seniors."
Florida’s first female attorney general has focused much of her attention on drug abuse and the human trafficking slave trade that exploits children.
But she also has used her position as the so-called people’s lawyer to push a partisan political agenda to a greater degree than her predecessors.
"The consumer, the little guy, was never her focus," said Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, a liberal advocacy group based in St. Petersburg. "It was the high-profile social issues that appealed to her base."
Solidly aligned with the political right and spending taxpayers’ money on causes near and far, Bondi opposed the federal health care law known as Obamacare; battled legalization of medical marijuana and opposed semiautomatic weapon bans in New York and Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting. She sided with polluters in challenging a federal effort to clean up Chesapeake Bay and to limit carbon emissions from power plants and waged a long, failed legal assault on same-sex marriage.
Associated Press - 2012
Mark Wilson, CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said Bondi’s emphasis on street crime and social issues has served Florida’s economy well.
"You don’t want an attorney general that wakes up every day and doesn’t look at drug abuse and doesn’t look at human trafficking and sex crimes, and instead attacks job creators," Wilson said. "That’s what they have in New York and they’re losing to us."
Wilson was referring to New York’s Democratic attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who played an important part in the story of Bondi’s political rise.
It was Schneiderman’s lawsuit two years ago against Trump University that triggered months of bad publicity for Bondi — and forever linked her political fortunes to Trump himself.
Along with Trump, Bondi’s stand against same-sex marriage has been the most memorable episode of her six years in office.
Her defense of the statewide ban passed by voters in 2008 made her the public face of the opposition to same-sex marriage. Her office caused a furor with the wording of a brief that argued disrupting the state’s existing law on marriage would "impose significant public harm."
In the end, she drew as much ire for her continued defense of the ban. Days before she won a second term in 2014, as the legal basis for a gay marriage ban was collapsing, Bondi asked U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to extend a stay and prevent same-sex marriages in Florida. She later balked at paying nearly $500,000 in legal fees to the winning side.
Bondi, who did not respond to requests for an interview, blamed a staffer for the wording of the brief and said she was obligated to defend the ban on gay marriage because it was in the Florida Constitution.
Others saw it differently.
"This is how an attorney general uses the law to serve an ideology and partisan politics rather than justice," said Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union.
After a gunman killed 49 people in June at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Bondi changed her tone and sought solidarity with the LGBT community.
That led to an on-air confrontation with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who questioned her record on gay rights and called it "a sick irony" that Bondi was defending a community she had fought for so long.
"It is her duty to send a loud and clear message that Florida is a place that won’t tolerate discrimination against anyone including gay and transgender people," said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, a former lobbyist for the gay rights group Equality Florida.
In the days after the massacre, Bondi reached out to Equality Florida leader Nadine Smith, according to text messages from Bondi’s phone released to the Times/Herald.
"Was just on Fox and Friends promoting Equality Florida as place to donate," Bondi texted Smith. "Can go online and watch."
After Bondi heard of a mother who refused to claim the body of her dead son when she found out he was gay, she texted: "Oh, no, Nadine. What can we do to help?"
She lined up funeral homes to ensure any unclaimed bodies received a proper burial, the text messages show, until other family members claimed the body.
Tough on street crime
Before riding a tea party wave to her job as the state’s top legal officer, Bondi was a prosecutor in Hillsborough County. In nearly two decades there, she polished her legal and political résumé and became a fixture on the 6 o’clock news in Tampa.
Bondi often refers to her career as a prosecutor as evidence of being tough on street crime, which has become a primary focus for her as attorney general.
One of her first decisions on the Florida Cabinet was to make it harder for convicted felons to regain their civil rights, including the right to vote. Bondi joined with Gov. Rick Scott to dismantle a streamlined clemency process begun under former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Most states allow convicted felons to vote after they’ve completed their sentences, and several Democratic governors have issued blanket orders restoring rights to people convicted of non-violent crimes.
Florida now has one of the strictest laws in the United States for felons to regain their rights. Past lawbreakers must be crime-free for at least five years before they can petition the state to have their rights restored — a process that can take up to a decade.
"Felons (must) first prove their rehabilitation through the test of time, before having their rights restored," Bondi said when the new system began.
Bondi reverted to her prosecutor persona in a successful campaign against pill mills. In her first term, Bondi pushed hard for increased penalties for doctors who abused their power to prescribe painkillers at clinics that were attracting addicts to Florida from all over the country.
Associated Press - 2011
After the state enacted tougher rules, overdose deaths from prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone fell by almost 1,000 cases in just two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But since then, another drug epidemic has filled the void. Heroin-related deaths have skyrocketed more than tenfold from 62 in 2011 to 779 in 2015.
Drug treatment experts say that after the pill mills closed, money for drug treatment did not increase.
"The issue with pill mills is it was a very legal, legitimate way for individuals to become addicted," said Marvin Coleman, vice president of Operation PAR, a treatment center in Pinellas Park. "Some of those individuals have gone into treatment, which is good. Some of them have continued to use, and they’ve gone to heroin."
The arrival of cheap heroin from Mexico and the pervasiveness of fentanyl, a deadly opiate used to heighten the potency of weak heroin, fed a market of addicts in search of supply, said Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale who studies drug addiction.
"As long as we had people addicted to opiates, the demand was going to remain and would fuel the epidemic," he said.
Bondi has made human trafficking another top priority, featuring the issue prominently on her website and in her legislative budget requests.
"I truly believe we’ve made a lot of headway," said Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, a member of a Council on Human Trafficking that Bondi championed. "She has fostered a culture of inclusiveness and made sure there’s a level of collaboration with our agencies that we haven’t seen in a long time."
The number of human trafficking investigations rose to 535 last year from 89 in 2010, the year before Bondi took office, according to the council, and lawmakers have passed trafficking-related bills in each of the past five years, which Nunez said is proof that Bondi knows how to work with the Legislature to achieve her goals.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, however, found that the increased focus on the sex trade yielded few guilty verdicts for traffickers themselves. As of October 2015, FCIR found, only 24 men and women in state prisons had been convicted of sex trafficking while hundreds of prostitutes were arrested each year.
Up-to-date data on human trafficking is hard to come by. Bondi’s office is currently prosecuting 94 people on human trafficking charges, but additional cases could be pursued by Florida’s 20 state attorneys or three U.S. attorneys.
Bondi promised Republican crowds she would be a "pro-business" attorney general.
Her comfort with the corporate world drew national attention in 2014 after the New York Times revealed Bondi chose not to pursue lawsuits against firms represented by the Washington law firm Dickstein Shapiro.
The firm spent thousands on lavish events for Bondi and other Republican attorneys general at national conferences. Bondi received $25,000 in meals, airfare and hotels over a two-year period, all of it paid by corporate donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association, the New York Times reported.
Bondi spent another $14,000 in taxpayer money to attend conferences attended by lobbyists whose clients wanted to avoid investigations into state consumer complaints.
Among the cases that fizzled in Florida were those against Accretive Health, a hospital bill collector put out of business in Minnesota for six years for abusive practices; Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit online school that Iowa’s attorney general said engaged in "unconscionable" sales practices; and online reservation firms, including Travelocity and Priceline, which allegedly withheld taxes on hotel rooms booked in the state.
"No access to me or my staff will ever affect what we do — and we’ve shown that — to protect consumers of this great state," Bondi told Tallahassee reporters after the stories about Dickstein Shapiro were published. "We’re proud of our record."
The one case Bondi did not pursue that drew the most national attention involved Trump.
With the New York real estate mogul facing intense scrutiny, an old story resurfaced this summer about a $25,000 check that his charitable foundation gave to Bondi’s re-election campaign in September 2013.
The donation came as New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Trump University. Bondi did not open an investigation, even after the state received nearly two dozen complaints about the real estate seminars — most of them before she took office.
Critics called the check an example of pay-for-play politics at its worst. Breaking a weeks-long silence on the issue and emerging after a noticeable absence from the campaign trail, Bondi held a tense news conference in September, dismissing concerns.
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"I would never, ever trade any campaign donation — that’s absurd — for some type of favor to anyone," Bondi told reporters.
Bondi never did investigate Trump University. New York’s Schneiderman did, and then sued on behalf of the students. Trump denounced the lawsuit as frivolous. But after getting elected, Trump reversed himself, settling with Schneiderman and the lawyers of two class action lawsuits in California for $25 million on Nov. 18.
About 7,000 students, including several Floridians, will share in the settlement.
But none of their cases were handled by Bondi.
Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.