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  1. Florida Politics

St. Petersburg officials recoil at offer of help from Weinstein attorney David Boies

David Boies, the high-profile lawyer under fire in the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment case, in Washington D.C. in 2014. Boies had offered to represent St. Petersburg if it has to defend its Super PAC ordinance. But after Boies' role in the Weinstein scandal was revealed, now St. Petersburg City Council is recoiling at his offer. (Jabin Botsford/The New York Times)

ST. PETERSBURG — What does disgraced Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein have to do with the city's fight against the influence of money in politics?

Believe it or not, there is a connection.

Last month the City Council approved an ordinance limiting the amount an individual can give a political action committee in a single year to $5,000. It could serve as a vehicle for challenging the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission decision. The historic 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling removed restrictions on how much outside groups can spend on elections.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Petersburg council acts to limit big money in city elections (Oct. 5, 2017)

Two weeks ago, City Council chairwoman Darden Rice touted the offer of legal star David Boies to defend the new ordinance for free for the city. Boies and his firm Boies Schiller Flexner offered their services, according to Free Speech for People, the group that pushed for the new law.

Once, that would have been welcome news. Boies helped the U.S. government sue Microsoft and argued two landmark cases before the nation's highest court. He was lead counsel in Bush vs. Gore during the 2000 recount and the 2013 Hollingsworth vs. Perry case for marriage equality.

But now Rice is pumping the brakes on Boies' offer and another council member, Steve Kornell, has vowed to vote against any city involvement with Boies. That's because its has since been revealed that the high-powered lawyer was involved in spying on women who have accused Weinstein, a film producer, of sexually assaulting and harassing them.

According to the New Yorker, Boies hired a private investigator on behalf of his client Weinstein to find information that could be used to undermine their allegations. The goal was to halt the publication of a New York Times report detailing the allegations against Weinstein.

The New York Times article was published Oct. 5. Weinstein was fired by his own company as more women told their stories about him. The allegations now involve dozens of women and go back decades.

Boies' role in trying to suppress those accounts was then revealed on Nov. 6 by the New Yorker, which reported that he "personally signed" the contract with the firm that spied on Weinstein's accusers.

Boies was also representing the New York Times in other cases while working for Weinstein to stop the newspaper from writing about his client. The lawyer apologized for his involvement with the private investigators but denied a conflict of interest involving the newspaper. Nevertheless, the Times fired Boies.

Those revelations caught the attention of Kornell, who wrote Monday on Facebook that Boies' involvement in the Weinstein scandal means he would vote against any offer from the lawyer to defend the city's Super PAC ordinance.

"I find this reprehensible and will absolutely NOT vote to accept Boies' offer to represent the city of St. Petersburg pro bono on the campaign finance issue," Kornell wrote.

Rice, who led the effort to pass the ordinance on Oct. 5, said Boies' offer was still a good sign for the city if it has to go to court. Still, she doesn't want to see him represent the city, either.

"His interest tells me we have a great case," Rice said. "But we have plenty of time to keep our options open."

She added the city was a long way from negotiating any kind of agreement for legal representation anyway. The ordinance goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Council member Charlie Gerdes, who is an attorney, says he trusts city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch will advise the council on how to proceed if a lawsuit materializes, as Gerdes said he expects will happen.

"That day is not here. When and if it comes, then any potential participation by Mr. Boies based upon his offer would be deeply scrutinized, if not outright rejected. Until then, this just seems to be a story looking for a future," Gerdes wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.

A request for comment from Boies made through Free Speech for People was not answered. John Bonifaz, the non-profit's co-founder and president, also did not return a request for comment.

Kornell said Tuesday that he was particularly troubled by Boies' attempts to squash reporters' inquiries about Weinstein.

"There are other attorneys out there," Kornell said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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