TALLAHASSEE — An ethics complaint filed Friday alleges a Washington, D.C., law firm illegally lobbied Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi before she dropped suits or declined to investigate cases involving its clients.
Florida requires that those "seeking the goodwill" of the attorney general or her staff register first as state lobbyists. Yet none of the partners of Dickstein Shapiro did so in the last four years even as they exchanged emails, phone calls and met numerous times with Bondi and members of her staff to discuss client business.
Cases seeking damages against Dickstein Shapiro clients languished, were dismissed, or never materialized.
"It looks like a clear violation to me," said the man who filed the complaint, Charles Swofford, a Connecticut retiree who lives in the Villages and is a registered Democrat. "If we're going to have a law about lobbyists, we need to enforce it. No one is above the law."
Swofford's complaint names Bernard Nash, the Dickstein Shapiro partner who oversees the firm's lobbying of attorneys general. If found to have violated the law, Nash and the firm could be fined up to $5,000 and banned from lobbying state officials for two years.
Nash didn't return phone calls.
Bondi isn't named in the complaint. Only lobbyists must follow the rule, not those who are lobbied. She is subject to a ban on accepting gifts from those who could benefit from her decisions. But a loophole allows her to accept dinners, drinks, trips and swag (such as the $351 gift bag she got at a Conference of Western Attorneys General in 2011) if they are provided by a national professional organization.
That's a significant loophole, considering that Dickstein Shapiro has contributed $122,060 to Republican Attorneys General Association, a super PAC that contributed $750,000 to Bondi's re-election. She serves on RAGA's executive committee, which since 2011 has spent $25,000 to cover expenses for Bondi to attend conferences. At some of those conferences, she met with Dickstein Shapiro partners and clients, records show.
Nash first contacted Bondi shortly after she was elected in 2010 and regularly mingled with Bondi and her staff at RAGA and National Association of Attorneys General conferences at resorts in Hawaii, Arizona and Mexico.
Polls show Bondi has a comfortable margin over her two opponents in the Nov. 4 election. Since the meetings between Dickstein Shapiro and Bondi were first reported by the New York Times earlier this week, she has said that they have no bearing on her duties.
But on Friday, Democratic challenger George Sheldon — who has no money to air TV ads as Bondi has done — held news conferences in Tampa and Tallahassee to draw attention to the issue.
"Pam Bondi is the most unethical attorney general in my lifetime," Sheldon told reporters in Tallahassee. "It's clear that she shouldn't be re-elected. Quite frankly, she should be investigated."
Sheldon, who was deputy attorney general between 1999 and 2002, said he expects criminal and civil investigations into Bondi's interactions with Dickstein Shapiro and other special interests.
"Let's take Pam Bondi at her word," Sheldon said. "That these lavish vacations, these trips to Hawaii, to Mexico, did not impact her. What are the people in Florida to think? I think it raises serious questions."
Asked for a response Friday, Bondi's campaign denied any impropriety.
"She has always made her decisions based off of what is in the best interest of the people of Florida," campaign spokesman Trey Stapleton said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.