1. Florida Politics

Pam Bondi has close ties with law firm whose clients have had suits dropped in Florida

Attorneys General Pam Bondi and Patrick Morrisey, of West Virginia, right, meet in June during a Republican Attorneys General Association gathering at an exclusive resort in Coronado, Calif. A New York Times investigation has found that state attorneys general are aggressively pursued by lobbyists and lawyers attempting to influence them, but unlike rules covering other elected officials, there are few revolving-door restrictions or disclosure requirements governing the attorneys general.
Published Oct. 30, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Partners with a powerful Washington, D.C., law firm aren't registered as Florida lobbyists, but that hasn't stopped them from wining and dining Attorney General Pam Bondi the past four years to discuss clients.

Bondi dropped suits or declined to investigate cases after numerous behind-the-scenes interactions with the firm, Dickstein Shapiro, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald review shows none of the partners were registered to lobby in Florida, meaning their advocacy may have violated state law. They won't be prosecuted unless someone files a sworn complaint with the state.

Cases involving Dickstein Shapiro clients that fizzled in Florida include Accretive Health, a Chicago-based hospital bill collection company shut down in Minnesota for six years because of abusive collection practices; Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit online school that Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said had engaged in "unconscionable" sales practices; Herba­life, which had been investigated by federal and state authorities; and online reservation companies, including Travelocity and Priceline, on allegations that they were improperly withholding taxes on hotel rooms booked in the state.

Since 2011, Dickstein Shapiro has contributed $122,060 to the Republican Attorneys General Association, a super PAC that contributed $750,000 to Bondi's re-election bid. She sits on RAGA's executive committee.

Dickstein's partners and a client, ETC Capital, have also directly given $24,750 to Bondi's campaign.

Revelations about Bondi's relationship with Dickstein drew fire from her opponents.

"This is an attorney general who, once she is on a case, like gay marriage, won't let go," said Bill Wohlsifer, the Libertarian nominee. "This raises so many concerns because over and over she dropped these cases for no reason."

"This is devastating to her credibility," said Democratic nominee George Sheldon. "It tarnishes the images of attorneys general nationwide. This whole pay-to-play concept has got to stop."

Bondi said her interactions with special interests don't interfere with her duties.

"My office aggressively protects Floridians from unfair and deceptive business practices," Bondi said in a statement. "And absolutely no access to me or my staff is going to have any bearing on my efforts to protect Floridians."

It's not the first time questions have arisen about how Bondi intermingles politics with her official duties.

She persuaded Gov. Rick Scott to postpone an execution in 2013 so she could host a political fundraiser. At about the same time, Bondi accepted $25,000 from Donald Trump three days after a spokeswoman said she would be reviewing a complaint filed by the New York attorney general against Trump's for-profit schools. Though they've received complaints in Florida as well, Bondi's office has yet to take action.

Bernie Nash, the Dickstein Shapiro partner who oversees its lobbying of attorneys general, first made contact with Bondi shortly after she was elected in 2010. The firm regularly attends RAGA and National Association of Attorneys General meetings in resorts across the nation hoping to spend time with members and their staffs.

Nash, who couldn't be reached for comment, and other firm members invited Bondi and her staff a dozen times to various dinners, from an upscale Washington, D.C., bistro in Georgetown, to the Flagler Steakhouse at the exclusive Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, to a fine dining restaurant in Hawaii.

Email records show meetings were frequent. In 2012, Carlos Muniz, Bondi's chief of staff at the time, asked Dickstein attorney Divonne Smoyer for drinks at a hotel bar where an NAAG conference was being held. She agreed by replying "Perfect."

When reached Wednesday, Smoyer, who is no longer with the firm, refused to answer why she lobbied Bondi's staff if she wasn't registered as a Florida lobbyist.

State disclosure records show Bondi frequently booked trips to the cities where she was invited to dine with Dickstein Shapiro, staying at expensive resorts. She went to Hawaii in 2011 and had her expenses paid by the Conference of Western Attorneys General. The group covered nearly $1,600 of her travel expenses, including a $351 gift bag. Taxpayers picked up the rest.

She traveled again on the same group's dime on a 2014 trip to Mexico, where it paid for $4,000 in gifts. NAAG also gave her $4,000 to cover a trip to Israel.

Overall, RAGA is her biggest benefactor, spending $25,000 in the form of gifts to cover expenses to attend conferences that allowed her to meet with Dickstein Shapiro partners.

Emails show that one of the firm's partners, Lori Kalani, helped set up a glowing cover story on Bondi in InsideCounsel magazine, which is distributed to corporate lawyers. In the July 1, 2013, story, Bondi was asked how to work with companies.

"You treat each other with respect and civility, even if you're adversaries," she said.

Dickstein repeatedly invited Bondi to events that could raise her national profile, including a panel discussion with firm clients at the Washington Ritz-Carlton, where she was given an advance list of questions. Bondi accepted this invitation, and timed it with a NAAG meeting where she attended another dinner with Dickstein and held a fundraiser at the offices of Home Depot.

Several of Dickstein's clients have benefited from Bondi's lack of action.

Nash contacted Bondi's office to persuade it not to file suit against Accretive Health, which had agreed with Minnesota's attorney general to cease operations for six years beginning in 2012. Florida hasn't taken any action, and a marketing brochure from the firm says "we persuaded AGs not to sue Accretive Health."

In 2009, Bondi predecessor Bill McCollum sued online travel companies for allegedly improperly withholding state taxes. Travelocity and Priceline were clients of Dickstein.

By May 2011, some worried that Bondi was letting the case slide.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, at the time a Democratic state representative, wrote to Bondi, urging her to pursue the case. He said the online companies made undue profits by paying taxes on the amount they booked rooms for, not the actual amount customers paid. Overall, he said, it was costing the state more than $100 million in lost revenue.

More than six months later, Chris Tampio, a Dickstein lobbyist not registered in Florida, asked Bondi's deputy, Trish Connors, about the case.

"Thank you so much for chatting with me last week about the online travel site suit," he wrote. "I wanted to see if your office had made a decision on how to proceed? I hope to see you at the NAAG meeting in March."

Connors replied that Bondi was not prepared to dismiss the case at the time. Later that year, Dickstein invited Bondi to at least two more dinners, including one in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Bondi flew to Arizona to attend a RAGA meeting, and her $2,217 in expenses were covered by the group.

Meanwhile, Bondi's office dismissed the case against Travelocity and Priceline, saying their transactions weren't taxable because of ambiguous state law — the same argument made by Dickstein.

"Bondi did nothing to move on the issue," Kriseman said Wednesday. "It's disturbing when you consider how much money the state's losing."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.


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