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Backroom Briefing: House Eyes Torrent of Legal Fees

February 16, 2017 - 10:00pm

Florida's stinging setback in its "water war" with Georgia is only going to add more scrutiny to the enormous legal bills the state has racked up over the past few years.

Through November, Florida had paid out more than $35 million to four law firms involved in the U.S. Supreme Court case during the last two fiscal years, according to data collected by the Florida House. The challenge centers on whether Georgia has diverted too much water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Latham & Watkins, the lead law firm with Supreme Court expertise, has earned more than $31 million, followed by Foley Lardner with $2.5 million in fees the last two years.

Since 2001, Florida has paid out $72 million in legal fees for the current case, which started in 2013, and previous litigation, the House data shows. If the projection of more than $40 million in legal fees for this year holds steady, the total legal tab since 2001 could well exceed $90 million.

But after paying all that money and hiring top-level legal experts, Florida appears headed to defeat in the case, which still awaits review from the U.S. Supreme Court.

This week, a special master, appointed by the Supreme Court, issued a recommendation that Florida be denied any relief. He said he could not reach an equitable water-use settlement between Florida and Georgia without the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was not a party to the lawsuit but controls water flow in the river system through a series of dams and reservoirs.

Closely watching the case is House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who previously described the legal fees in the case as "gouging."

It was at the House's insistence that lawmakers balked last month at approving a $13 million boost in the Department of Environmental Protection's budget to cover escalating costs until the legal fees were thoroughly reviewed.

In an interview Thursday with The News Service of Florida, Corcoran, who is a lawyer, said the legal fee review is ongoing. "It takes time," he said.

Corcoran said the House has consulted with an outside counsel "who is very familiar with this type of scenario of overbilling (which) is what we would call it."

Corcoran also said House legal staff members are scrutinizing the special master's report, which was issued Tuesday. He said they were reviewing the issue of "the extent that our (outside) lawyers failed to include an indispensable party," referring to the Corps, in the litigation.

The speaker also raised the prospect of the House “aggressively” pursuing refunds after looking at issues involved in the case.

As the House lawyers review the report, they will find a paragraph noting that more legal fees are coming Florida's way. Not only did Florida officials lose the case, but the state must pay costs of the special master, Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer, who ruled against them.

The only financial solace for the Florida is that Georgia has to split the special master's costs.


Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, wants Gov. Rick Scott's help to ease economic burdens on a general aviation airport in Palm Beach County when his buddy is in town.

In a letter Wednesday to Scott, Berman noted that temporary flight restrictions imposed by the Secret Service when President Donald Trump visits his Palm Beach home --- a frequent occurrence --- shuts down aviation-related businesses at Lantana Airport.

"While the safety of our president is the first and foremost concern of all citizens, I am hopeful that you will recognize the value and importance of maintaining jobs and the economic engine that helps fuel Palm Beach County, which in turn helps our entire state," Berman wrote.

The airport is home to about 300 aircraft and employs about 250 people, according to Berman.

"I believe there are potential options on how to maintain the positive economic benefits that the Lantana Airport has for our county and state, while still keeping the president safe," she continued. "Without the consideration of a slightly loosened TFR (temporary flight restriction), our community will continue to feel these adverse effects on our local economy."

Berman's letter was a follow-up to a meeting Monday in Palm Beach County attended by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., local officials and members of the aviation community.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: “Happy Birthday @JimCantore, may we never sit together on the same airplane, freaks out the passengers who want to know where we are going.” --- Craig Fugate (@WCraigFugate), a former director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management and former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a birthday greeting Thursday to The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, known for his live reports from severe weather events.



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