Senate President Joe Negron is hardly the first legislator to practice law for a firm with business before the Florida Legislature.
In fact, he isn't even the first to join Akerman LLC, the West Palm Beach law firm that touted him in an efusive press release this week as their proud new hire. Marco Rubio worked for Akerman while he was House speaker; Jose “Pepe” Felix Diaz, who resigned his House seat to run in the SD 40 special election, works for Akerman now.
Practicing law for public policy firms is perfectly acceptable under Section 112.313 of the Florida Statutes, providing lawyer-lawmakers follow the rules.
But it shouldn't be. This is a bad law, one left unaddressed last session when Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, was working to close loopholes in ethics rules.
And I can't help thinking Corcoran and Negron know it, too.
At first glance, it looks as if the creators of the law codified in Florida Statutes under Section 112.313, thought of everything to keep lawmakers "clean."
Here's what Pat Neal wrote to a lawyer-senator who asked for a written opinion on what he could and couldn't do in the Legislature for his law firm. Neal was chairman of the Commission on Ethics in April 2003, when he wrote his reply:
"... in light of our decisional history specific to members of the Legislature, we find that Section 112.313(7)(a) does not prohibit your having a relationship with the law firm, notwithstanding that other members of the firm lobby the Legislature, provided your relationship comports with the following conditions designed to separate you from legislative lobbying and related matters:
"(1) You do not lobby other members of the Legislature in behalf of your firm or its clients, or in regard to matters of concern to the firm or its clients.
"(2) Your income from your relationship with the firm, whether characterized as salary, profit-sharing, or some other item, must not flow from the firm’s legislative lobbying activities or from fees or moneys paid the firm for lobbying or related activities. That is, your income or remuneration must come from your activities as a litigator before courts and local government bodies, from your other work unconnected to legislative lobbying, and from firm work unconnected to legislative lobbying; and it must not include bonuses, finders fees, or similar compensation, related to lobbying clients.
"(3) You must abstain from voting on or participating regarding claims bills concerning the firm or its clients.
"(4) You must not file any legislation for the firm or its clients.
"(5) You must disclose your firm’s representation of clients before the Legislature (in order to reveal potential for conflict).
"(6) Your employment agreement with the firm prohibits members of the firm from lobbying you on behalf of any firm client.
"In essence, one of our purposes in issuing this opinion is to provide you with guidance enabling you to litigate and otherwise practice law in a statewide firm, while not engaging in or profiting from lobbying or lobbying-related activities concerning the Legislature, thus simultaneously recognizing your status as a part-time citizen-legislator (necessarily involved in earning a living beyond your legislative salary) and preserving the public trust regarding you as a lawmaker."
Think about it.
The beauty of this from the law firm's point of view is, it's foolproof. The firm can cash in on a high-profile legislator, and he never has to speak to a client, never has to review a client's legislation.
He only has to be on the firm's attorney roster to attract clients who need a bill passed, or put off those who would oppose that bill.
What Akerman is buying is "a chilling effect."
Akerman advertises the firm's ability "to assist clients in advancing and achieving their strategic legislative objectives in Florida's Capitol." This firm hasn't the remotest interest in Negron's "30 years of experience in high stakes litigation, business law and complex commercial litigation,” as they claim in their hiring announcement.
If Negron never walks into a courtroom, if he never touches a single commercial dispute, it would be fine with them. He's still worth his weight in gold.
As Senate president, Negron has two basic jobs. He appoints committee chairs and he sets the calendar.
Setting the calendar is real power. Negron has it and clients know it. They need their issues heard.
This is no attack on Negron's abilities as a lawyer. It's just a fact.
In January, when Negron left Akerman lookalike Gunster, he said he was stepping away in "an abundance of caution, to avoid even the possible appearance of such a difference, and to make certain I can continue to effectively advocate for my community, I have made the decision to step away from my position with the Gunster Law Firm." One of Gunster's clients was U.S. Sugar Corp., perceived by many of Negron's constituents to be an enemy of Senate Bill 10, the reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.
Unfortunately, the Senate president no longer sees a conflict of interest working for Akerman.
Gov. Rick Scott sees it. A letter from Scott's chief of staff, Kim McDougal, to Corcoran's chief of staff, Matt Bahl, said Scott favored prohibiting legislators from working for law firms that lobby the Legislature -- "to ensure that all funding decisions are made free from any undue influence, whether real or perceived."
It sounds like an easy bill to write -- even in a Legislature where the leaders of both chambers are attorneys. OK, maybe easier to write than it would be to get heard.
The point is, lawyers in Florida's "citizen Legislature" certainly won't starve if they don't let themselves be used by working for legislative lobbyists.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith